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New Orleans reinstates police use of facial recognition, reversing earlier ban

The NOPD argued about dropping the restrictions, which would give LEOs more tools to find and arrest people who committed murders and other acts of violence

By Ben Myers
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate

NEW ORLEANS — The New Orleans City Council on Thursday voted to allow New Orleans police to use facial recognition and other surveillance tools, siding with Mayor LaToya Cantrell and a number of civic groups over the concerns of privacy advocates as the city confronts a violent crime surge.

The 4-2 vote on an ordinance introduced by District C Council member Eugene Green rolls back parts of a broader surveillance ban passed by the council in 2020. It allows the New Orleans Police Department to request access to facial-recognition technology when it is investigating violent crimes. The NOPD will also be allowed to use “cell-site simulators,” or mock cell towers used in cell phone surveillance.

New Orleans police, Cantrell and a number of civic and business groups have argued for months that dropping the council’s earlier restrictions, which took effect last year, would give the city’s depleted force more tools to find and arrest people who committed murders and other acts of violence. New Orleans had 145 murders in the first half of this year, far outpacing any other U.S. city on a per-capita basis and putting it on pace for the highest count since the late 1990s.

But privacy advocates and civil-liberties groups who fought to put the initial restrictions in place said it was a mistake to roll back the ban, noting that law enforcement had offered no evidence that the tools had ever actually played a role in solving crimes.

Council members JP Morrell and Lesli Harris, who voted against the ordinance Thursday, said it will do nothing to improve public safety and will divert focus from other urgent problems within the police department. Marvin Arnold of Eye on Surveillance, a privacy advocacy organization that pushed for the original ban, assailed the ordinance as a performative measure. Arnold said the council would do better targeting poverty and disenfranchisement.

“Refusing to deal with root causes is just a big show. It’s a performance that undermines the intelligence of the New Orleans people and highlights the shallowness of our leadership,” Arnold said.

Green said that new NOPD policies on the use of facial recognition technology, including restrictions on what types of crimes the surveillance could be used for and procedures for ensuring accuracy, were adequate safeguards.

“I would not do anything that would imperil myself, my two Black sons, or anyone in this city. That is why these safeguards are in place,” said Green.

In a prepared statement, Cantrell called the ordinance “a win for everybody” that represented “a tremendous stride towards greater public safety.”

A reversal

The City Council approved its original ban nearly two years ago. At the time, New Orleans had experienced some of the lowest levels of violent crime in years, with murders falling to a multi-decade low. It also came after NOPD officials were forced to admit that earlier statements by top brass that the force wasn’t using facial recognition weren’t true. Privacy advocates had also been arguing for years that the technology was far more likely to return false matches against Black people.

The ban outlawed the NOPD from generating evidence based on facial recognition or requesting such evidence from a third party — though investigators were allowed to use it if it was provided without them asking. The new law still forbids NOPD from generating facial surveillance itself, but allows investigators to request it when investigating specific crimes.

Police officials on Thursday said the technology is a vital investigative tool. Sgt. David Barnes, addressing the council, stressed that the new NOPD policy, which was written in anticipation of Thursday’s vote, creates several layers of human review to prevent misidentification.

Investigators wanting to use the technology must first exhaust all other methods of identification, and then request permission from a supervisor. The supervisor verifies the investigator’s “reasonable suspicion” that the subject is connected to criminal activity, and then sends the image to the Louisiana State Analytical and Fusion Exchange, which analyzes law enforcement data for local, state and federal agencies.

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Personnel at the fusion center would then submit the image to a database of mugshots and other images with identified subjects in search of possible matches, and multiple staff members must separately agree before returning a positive match, Barnes said. Contrary to concerns of opponents, Barnes said the technology actually deters wrongful convictions by helping police more efficiently and accurately identify suspects.

But under Harris’s questioning, Barnes said he had no information on how many times it had been used prior to the ban or what happened as the result of its use.

“You have no data, sitting here today, telling me that this actually works, that it leads to arrests, admissions or clearances,” Harris said.

In addition to Green, council members Freddie King III, Oliver Thomas and Joe Giarrusso voted to support the measure. Council member Helena Moreno, who was experiencing COVID-19 symptoms this week, was absent on advice of her doctor.

Her absence prevented passage of a series amendments to the ordinance that were aimed at ensuring that facial recognition is not used to investigate abortions or consensual sexual activity between members of the same sex, and to require judicial review prior to NOPD use of the technology and regular reporting on its efficacy.

A separate amendment passed clarifying that use of facial recognition is restricted to NOPD and not available to city personnel outside of the department.

A pared-down version

The move to again allow facial recognition began earlier this year. Green initially introduced a measure in February that allowed facial recognition and other controversial technology related to characteristic tracking, predictive policing and cell phone surveillance, all of which had been included in the 2021 ban. Green withdrew the measure at a council committee last month before a vote, and returned with a pared-down version Thursday for full council consideration.

Green’s revised ordinance listed specific crimes that could be assisted with facial recognition, and also left in place the ban on characteristic tracking and predictive policing. Morrell and Harris said explicit protections — like those in their failed amendment — are needed because Louisiana’s criminal statutes could always be changed. For example, Morrell noted that the definition of murder could be changed to include fetuses as victims.

Green said the protections sought by Morrell and Harris could be added later if necessary.


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