New Orleans camera security plan offers little impact but raises concerns, monitor says

Several views of New Orleans streets are seen on camera feeds being monitored at the newly opened Real Time Crime Monitoring Center in New Orleans on Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017.
Several views of New Orleans streets are seen on camera feeds being monitored at the newly opened Real Time Crime Monitoring Center in New Orleans on Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017. The Advocate

The independent police monitor in New Orleans is raising alarms about Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s strategy for improving public safety in the city, warning that a planned expansion of video surveillance could be used to impinge on residents’ privacy and civil rights.

In a public letter issued Nov. 29, the Office of Independent Police Monitor also questioned whether the $40 million plan, which the mayor first unveiled almost a year ago, will have a substantial impact on crime.

“As with any law enforcement data system housing private information about citizens, there is a potential for mismanagement, poor information security, public record law compliance challenges and user abuse,” the letter warned.

It added that while surveillance capabilities are being beefed up, the plan does not “earmark resources or personnel to monitor the implementation of the plan.”

The letter is a rare proactive statement of concern from the police monitor’s office, which typically evaluates policies that already are in place and reviews past police actions.

Landrieu first described his public safety initiative after a shooting on Bourbon Street in November 2016 left one dead and nine injured. Paid for with money from the city and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, the plan focuses heavily on increasing surveillance, both by adding city-owned cameras and by accessing feeds from cameras owned by private individuals and businesses, though the latter policy still needs City Council approval.

Officials cut the ribbon on the central hub for monitoring all those feeds last week, and Landrieu responded to questions about the potential privacy implications.

“If you’re out in public, it is highly likely in this day and age you’re going to be filmed by some camera or somebody holding a phone,” he said. “I just think that’s the new day and age that we’re in, and people should conduct themselves accordingly.”

The police monitor is nevertheless warning that adding surveillance capabilities carries serious risks, citing studies that found instances of abuse elsewhere. A review of surveillance footage gathered by the government-run camera system in London, for example, found that a significant amount of surveillance of women was voyeuristic.

In addition, the letter noted various cases where police officers have been caught using surveillance systems or police databases to stalk or harass women.

“Not only is this type of police misconduct a risk to the Police Department and public safety, but these types of activities could be precursors to more serious misconduct among officers and also promulgate a culture of sexual misconduct,” the letter cautioned.

It also warned of potential racial biases. The same study of London security cameras found that more than two-thirds of all surveillance of black people was for “no obvious reason.”

The monitor’s office said the system also could allow residents to be tracked and could lead to images or videos being improperly released, either by the police themselves, by hackers or through lax security.

The letter, signed by Acting Police Monitor Ursula Price because Monitor Susan Hutson is on medical leave, also cites various studies showing that the impact of a surveillance camera network on the crime rate is minimal at best, and it recounts the failures and corruption involved in an effort to set up crime cameras during former Mayor Ray Nagin’s administration.

In an emailed statement Wednesday, Landrieu Communications Director Tyronne Walker said safeguards were put in place before the camera program was rolled out.

“The city attorney has been involved in development of the camera monitoring program, and the NOPD will ensure constitutional policing in its administration of the program,” Walker said.

Officials with the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana have previously raised concerns about some aspects of the mayor’s plan, as has the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans. The latter’s objections, which were publicized in a letter and petition calling for more public input into the plan, were a catalyst for the police monitor to look into the proposal.

While not directly calling for the city to halt implementation of the plan, the letter urges the city to put policies in place to mitigate potential risks.

Those include prohibiting operators from aiming cameras at or magnifying individuals or groups without reasonable suspicion of a public safety issue, banning them from pointing cameras into homes and doing regular monitoring to ensure compliance.