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Report raises questions about city’s new crime camera system

4th December 2017   ·   0 Comments

With members of the Landrieu administration and NOPD officials already heaping praise on the city’s new crime camera system, at least one public agency is questioning the legality of the system and whether it might violate some residents’ rights.

But the criticism, in the form of a report by the Office of the Independent Police Monitor, comes as the new camera system is already being touted as a game-changer in the city’s fight against crime.

“The real-time center has already led to arrest and nearly instant responses to crimes in progress,” NOPD Supt. Michael Harrison said recently.

In a letter to members of the City Council dated Nov. 29, Independent Police Monitor Susan Hutson said the City’s real-time crime monitoring system could potentially lead to a violation of residents’ civil rights and privacy rights and fiscal waste.

“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,” Hutson warned the City Council in an eight-page report that accompanied the letter.

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

Hutson said in other cities, the use of similar real-time crime monitoring had resulted in “fiscal waste and police abuse of authority and information.”

She recommended oversight and community engagement to stave off potential problems

“As with any law enforcement data system housing private information about citizens, there is a potential for mismanagement, poor information security, public records law compliance challenges and user abuse,” Hutson wrote. “Although the Mayor’s proposed Plan would significantly expand NOPD’s surveillance and data collection capabilities, it does not earmark resources or personnel to monitor the implementation of the Plan. OIPM recommends the council consider how these surveillance and data collection systems will be monitored. A failure to build in monitoring and oversight may expose the City of New Orleans to a civil liability risk. In the event that evidence in these systems is used for prosecution, these systems could also present a risk of unconstitutional criminal justice practices as well. As recently as 2016, the Department of Justice warned that departments should not expand their electronic surveillance capabilities until they have addressed core problems of corruption, poor oversight, and inadequate training.”

“The potential for abuse is an important reason for OIPM oversight and monitoring,” Hutson pointed out. “Unregulated systems have the potential to jeopardize the expensive and hard-won police reforms of the past 10 years. The list of potential abuse falls into three categories: (a) Improper focus on a person’s body; (b) Disparate racial impact; and (c) Retention and improper release of images.

“A review of 592 hours of government-run CCTV monitoring system footage in London found that 10 percent of surveillance of women lasted more than one minute, and 15 percent of surveillance of women for shorter periods was voyeuristic,” Hutson continued. “In 2007, a police supervisor in Worcester, England was suspended after improperly manipulating surveillance cameras to focus in on women’s breasts and buttocks.

“Rampant misuse has already presented itself within similar systems in the U.S.A.,” Hutson wrote. “In a 2017 public-records request revealed that in California, rates of misuse of surveillance technologies by police officials are increasing annually, having gone up by 50 percent overall from 2011 to 2017. Just this month, an officer in New York was caught using law enforcement databases and surveillance system to harass and stalk his ex-partner, directing others in the department to gather surveillance of the victim and her family. Finally, in 2015 a police sergeant in Ohio pleaded guilty to felony charges of aggravated assault, tampering with evidence, menacing by stalking and other crimes, illegally using a police department computer to target and threaten women.”

The Landrieu administration and the NOPD unveiled the program Nov. 21 and its command center is locales on the edge of the French Quarter, which has had its share of robberies, assaults, carjackings and shootings in recent years.

Earlier this year, the City of New Orleans unveiled a $40 million crime initiative that promised to bring better lighting and additional cameras to the French Quarter, additional cameras to crime “hot spots” across the city and extra funding for NOPD overtime pay.

The City of New Orleans’ crime initiative came on the heels of a similar effort to combat violent crime that was launched by La. Attorney General Jeff Landry and utilized cops from other law enforcement agencies across the state to bolster the undermanned NOPD, which has been implementing a federally mandated consent decree since August 2013.

Hutson wrote in the OIPM report that the crime camera system could prove to be particularly harmful for Black residents in New Orleans, where unconstitutional policing by the NOPD after Hurricane Katrina led to the current federal consent decree to bring the city’s troubled police department up to federal standards for constitutional policing.

“In the aforementioned study in England, of 592 hours of camera monitoring, the researchers found that Black people were between 1.5 and 2.5 times more likely to be watched than one would expect from their presence in the population being monitored,” Hutson wrote. “Further, Black people were disproportionately placed under such surveillance for ‘no obvious reason’ – 68 percent of all surveillance of Blacks, compared to 35 percent of all surveillance of whites.

“According to a 2017 study from the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, other technologies implied by the plan but not explicitly mentioned, such as facial recognition cameras, have been shown to disproportionately misidentify Black people as suspects,” Hutson added. “Given the demographics of the 20 neighborhoods selected for special monitoring as part of this plan, there is a risk of further criminalization of people of color in New Orleans. Oakland rejected predictive policing in 2014 for these same reasons.”

“Racial profiling that uses technology is still racial profiling,” Dr. Peter Scharf, a local criminologist, told WWL News, adding that Hutson’s points are valid.

“The City Attorney has been involved in the “development of the camera monitoring program and the NOPD will ensure constitutional policing in its administration of the program,” Tyronne Walker, communications director for the City of New Orleans, said Wednesday.

This article originally published in the December 4, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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