As you walk down Felicity Street in the Central City neighborhood of New Orleans, red and blue flashing lights radiate from around the corner. But when you turn on to South Liberty Street, you won’t find a patrol car. Your gaze will rise to the peak of a street lamp where the lights are fastened to an NOPD surveillance camera that, just like the lights, runs 24 hours a day.
The beams engulf the small, seven-house block, reflecting off the windows of cars and homes, ricocheting off the bicycles of kids riding by, and lighting up the cheeks of Keisha Smith, who sits on her stoop eating crawfish. “I hate those lights,” she says. “There’s no privacy for us now. Everyone’s uncomfortable. I feel like somebody’s always watching me.” She looks up at the camera and shivers. “Why’d they have to put those here? It’s like trauma when I see that red and blue.”
This camera is just one of an unknown number that the city installed over the past few months, part of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s $40 million public safety plan which the American Civil Liberties Union has condemned as “surveillance on steroids.” The plan also includes new license plate readers and a controversial city ordinance that requires the installation of cameras on the outside of all bars and liquor stores.
The plan has endured criticism about its high cost and the lack of evidence that surveillance programs are an effective crime prevention strategy. Still others have worried that the Big Easy’s free-wheeling spirit and eccentricity will wane under the perpetual gaze of the police.
But more concerning is the public safety plan’s ambiguous purpose and the potential for abuse. It seems that the only oversight will come from the city’s Office of Homeland Security and from within the police department itself, which is currently under a federal consent decree for a myriad of violations including “a pattern of stops, searches, and arrests that violate the Fourth Amendment.”
A spokesperson for the New Orleans Police Department insisted that the department had controls on access to its systems, and that all activity on the system is logged and monitored, leaving an audit trail in cases of abuse. But beyond that, the department has failed to answer basic questions about how the cameras will be used, what technology it will incorporate, how long the footage will be stored, and who will have access to the footage.
The lack of details has sparked anxiety among the city’s undocumented immigrants, who fear that the new data will fall into the hands of the city’s exceptionally aggressive Immigration and Customs Enforcement field office.
But in the most incarcerated city in the most incarcerated state in the country, where black communities endure the brunt of police power, the most salient concern is how this powerful tool could exacerbate the city’s already racially disparate law enforcement.
Ursula Price, deputy police monitor at the New Orleans’ Independent Police Monitor’s Office, told The Intercept that the surveillance isn’t just a threat to individual black people, it compromises the essence of black communities at large. “Coming from Mississippi, one of the things I love about New Orleans is how black people occupy public space here. In Mississippi, you gather privately. But here, with second line culture, with stoop culture, black people are always occupying public space. This is a threat to all of that.”
The plan was developed largely in the shadows and the cameras were installed with little public debate.
Landrieu introduced it to the public in January 2017, less than two months after a high-profile shooting on Bourbon Street grabbed national and international headlines. New Orleans has long had one of the highest homicide rates in the country, an affliction that Landrieu has consistently approached with genuine empathy and frustration. But in a city driven by tourism, the misfortune of visitors is what often precipitates action.
“We’re sending a message to the millions of people who visit New Orleans every single year,” said Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, who came to New Orleans for the plan’s unveiling. “It’s important they know New Orleans is safe. New Orleans is open for business, and we want them all to come here to experience all that New Orleans and Louisiana have to offer.”
Both he and the mayor insist that the cameras are not just there to satiate nervous tourists. The surveillance, they say, is for the well-being of the people who live here. But it seems the only New Orleans civilians who had a hand in the plan’s formulation were representatives from the tourism and service industries. With zero public hearings, the plan wasn’t brought to public light for input and discussion before its implementation. The Independent Police Monitor was neither consulted nor warned, and according to NOPD Communications Director Beau Tidwell, the Federal Consent Decree Monitor wasn’t involved in the plan’s construction either. (The head of the monitoring team, Jonathan Aronie, said he wasn’t allowed to talk to the press.)
“This is the fundamental problem with policing in America,” says Price. “It’s been outside democracy for years.”
New Orleans’ surveillance program, like most others, was rationalized with national security and terrorist threats. The NOPD received gun-sniffing dogs and new patrol rifles for active shooter scenarios, and bollards were installed in the French Quarter to stop terrorists from driving through crowds.
But the central part of the plan, the component that ate up the majority of its funding, was an enigmatic blueprint for an extensive web of surveillance.
Last November, the city opened the Real Time Crime Monitoring Center, an impressive facility with wall-to-wall screens, dual monitor computers, men in headsets – all the trimmings of a Hollywood action set.
“If you’re in public, you do not have an expectation of privacy,” Landrieu said at the center’s grand opening. “I think that’s just the new day in age that we’re in, and people should conduct themselves accordingly.”
The monitoring center is managed by the New Orleans Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, but it’s primarily a tool for the NOPD. “We are going to demonstrate that we will see you, we will know who you are, we will be able to apprehend you,” said Police Superintendent Michael S. Harrison, at the opening.
Landrieu announced that the city had installed 80 cameras around New Orleans and planned to install 250 more by spring 2018. He also announced the installation of over 100 license plate readers. But this was just an appetizer.
The main course is an unprecedented city ordinance that the mayor is trying to push through city council that would require every business that sells alcohol to put cameras on the outside of their buildings, feeding live footage into the monitoring center. The surreptitious ordinance is only one sentence long, but it’s consequences would be massive, introducing dragnet video surveillance to New Orleans, which has more bars per capita than any other major American city.
The New Orleans City Council deferred voting on the ordinance at their February 10 meeting after the Louisiana Restaurant Association, a powerful state lobbying group, raised concerns about how it would affect their industry with the mayor’s office. It’s unclear when the ordinance will return to City Council for a vote, although The Advocate reported that it’s expected to come this month.
The NOPD has neither publicly enumerated nor set a limit to the permissible uses of surveillance footage. And some of the public safety plan’s promises are ominously vague. For example, it says that the crime monitoring center will allow the NOPD to “deter violence before it erupts,” as well as allow officers “to proactively focus on suspicious activity” and “increase their likelihood of an arrest from reasonable suspicion.”
For Price, this language raises alarms. The NOPD’s history of racist policing is as well-documented as it is tragic. “The limited arrest data that the department collects points to racial disparities in arrests of whites and African Americans in virtually all categories,” says a 2011 report by Department of Justice. These asymmetrical arrest rates are among the reasons that one in seven black men from New Orleans is either in prison, on parole, or on probation. They were also cited by the Department of Justice as justifications for the NOPD’s consent decree, which has been active since 2012.
Another concern for black New Orleanians is how the cameras will be used to identify and capture suspects. At the opening of the crime monitoring center, the head of the city’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, Aaron Miller, laid out a fictional example of how this might go. “We’re looking for an individual who just robbed a bank who may be wearing a gray sweater.” That description would go directly to the Monitoring Center’s technicians, who would scan live footage to identify those who match it and direct patrols accordingly.
Insert “black man in their mid-20s” for “gray sweater,” and you find a problem. Black men are much more likely to be misidentified as suspects by the police, according to the ACLU. Even the FBI’s facial recognition software is less accurate when trying to identify black suspects. Interactions between the NOPD and black people aren’t always benign, and increasing their frequency is dangerous, given that police are much more likely to subject black suspects to excessive and deadly force, according to the DOJ report.
“The NOPD has come a long way, but this is jumping the gun,” Price says. “To provide such an invasive tool without assuring the public that tool will be regulated is disturbing.”
The mayor’s initiative also comes during a period of heightened anxiety about immigration enforcement within New Orleans’ undocumented community.
ICE has ramped up detention and deportations throughout the U.S. since Donald Trump’s inauguration, but in the Deep South, this intensification is particularly stark. ICE’s New Orleans Field Office increased deportations by 98 percent from 2016 to 2017, according to numbers provided by Thomas Byrd, the field office’s Public Affairs Officer.
“First and foremost, what really scares us is that we don’t know who’s going to have access, like ICE,” says Rocio, an undocumented immigrant and member organizer for Congreso de Jornaleros, an immigrant advocacy organization in New Orleans. She asked that her last name be omitted for fear of deportation.
Particularly concerning for the city’s undocumented immigrants are the city’s new license plate readers, given that ICE recently announced a massive expansion of its ability to track license plates across the country.
Both Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Landrieu agree that New Orleans is not a sanctuary city, although it does have rules that the NOPD cannot inquire about a person’s immigration status and won’t detain undocumented immigrants at ICE’s request. However, it’s not clear that any NOPD rules prevent ICE from getting information from the real-time monitoring center. When asked what federal authorities will have access to the cameras, Tidwell said only that “access and sharing of the footage is governed by NOPD policy.”
For Rocio, the city’s failure to protect her community, or even acknowledge the danger of this surveillance, is disappointing but unsurprising.
“In saying that they’re doing this for the city, they’re leaving out key parts of the city,” Rocio said. “We don’t feel safer with these cameras. People are losing their partners, living without their husbands after they’re deported. What happens to these kids if their mother is deported too? I fear for my family, for my friends.” Rocio wipes tears from her eyes. Her own husband was detained by ICE a year and a half ago, she says, leaving her to raise her two children on her own.
Members of city council have remained reticent or completely silent as the debate stirs; the only voice from City Hall to explicitly acknowledge the potential for racially disproportionate impacts is Council President Jason Williams. “Broad surveillance networks have potential to be misused and to target vulnerable, immigrant communities and people of color,” he wrote in an emailed statement to The Intercept. “All of these proposals raise serious civil liberty, privacy rights, and constitutional concerns, while it is still certainly unclear how these measures will reduce criminal activity and increase public safety.”
Landrieu has waved off questions about his plan’s legality as puerile. His proclamations have been terse and unbending, insisting that this type of surveillance has been “black letter constitutional law for some period of time.”
Not everyone agrees. Marc J. Blitz, a law professor at Oklahoma University School of Law, says that because the Supreme Court has never adjudicated a challenge to public video surveillance, it’s hard to say for sure whether the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches puts constraints on public video surveillance. “I and other academics would argue that the Fourth Amendment should cover this stuff, given the power of this surveillance,” he told The Intercept.
When a camera is simply feeding live footage of public space to the police, this is more or less equivalent to an officer standing and observing in public, and wouldn’t be a Fourth Amendment violation, according to Blitz. But when the cameras are bolstered with increasingly advanced technology, questions of constitutionality arise.
In a 2013 article for the American University Law Review, Blitz argued that surveillance becomes a search when the footage is recorded. “By transforming ephemeral occurrences into permanent records, recording allows government officials to search public lives frame by frame, much like they might search documents file by file,” he wrote. Others have made the case that high-tech surveillance, such as face-recognition software and high-definition magnification, could impinge on the Fourth Amendment even in public spaces, if it illuminates what is otherwise imperceptible to the human eye. It could also have a chilling effect on First Amendment-protected activities, such as protests and other public gatherings.
New Orleans has repeatedly illustrated its willingness to embrace high-tech surveillance. The city has previously suggested installing infrared cameras to see if people are carrying weapons under their clothes. The NOPD stores its camera footage with Axon (formerly Taser), a company that claims to be creating artificial intelligence applications that can detect emotion and “anticipate criminal activity.” The Verge recently reported that New Orleans, without the knowledge of City Council or the public, has had a contract with Palantir since 2012 for a predictive policing program that uses data-mining and social network analysis to try to identify criminal activity.
The NOPD’s Tidwell said that the city doesn’t currently have facial recognition software. When asked what technology New Orleans’ new cameras will use, he declined to say. “We would prefer not to comment on specifics,” he said in an emailed statement.
Blitz also pointed out that the Constitution is not a complete enumeration of the rights to which people are entitled. Even if the Fourth Amendment doesn’t apply, he says, localities, through legislatures and city councils, can decide for themselves what level of state surveillance they’re willing to tolerate. New Orleanians could still push back.
Correction: March 20, 2018, 5:44 p.m
An earlier version of this article stated that Axon claimed to be creating facial recognition software. Although company executives have hinted at the development of such technology, a company spokesperson said that Axon’s technology “is not meant to be integrated with facial recognition software.”