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La. city boosts crime fighting with AI-powered firearm detection

“Addressing public safety has to be a mix of both investment and enforcement,” said Clay Young, Chair of the Baton Rouge Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Foundation


ZeroEyes’ technology focuses on identifying guns, not faces or body types.


By Elyse Carmosino
The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

BATON ROUGE — After three-year-old Devin Page was killed in a drive-by shooting while sleeping in his bed in April 2022, his grandmother, Cathy Toliver, knew she wanted to help other families of gun violence victims honor their loved ones.

Inspired by memorial walls often created for veterans, Toliver came up with an idea to build similar monuments throughout the city to display victims’ names and pictures. The first one, she decided, would be erected at the same corner where Devin had been shot to death nearly two years earlier.

Just one day after the first “Wall of Love” went up earlier this week, Toliver received a call that the memorial — which bore the images of more than 30 homicide victims — had been knocked down.

But while her grandson’s killing remains unsolved, Toliver said she’s confident that surveillance footage from a nearby camera, which was placed outside a convenience store last year through an anti-violence initiative founded in the wake of Devin’s death, will help police catch the suspects.

“I’m waiting on the call for them to tell me who did it,” Toliver said during a media briefing at the Baton Rouge Area Chamber Thursday. “I’m telling you today, there is a need for these cameras.”

Founded in November 2022, the Page/Rice Public Safety Initiative (recently rebranded from the Page/Rice Camera Initiative) has spearheaded local law enforcement efforts to modernize policing tactics as the city, despite a moderate dip in recent years, continues to grapple with unusually high rates of violence.

Now, the initiative is expanding those efforts to include license plate readers and an artificial intelligence program called ZeroEyes, which analyzes images from security camera feeds and sends alerts to authorities if a firearm is detected.

Clay Young, Chair of the Baton Rouge Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Foundation, called the software “a true game-changer.”

“There are people in our community who witness violent crimes and are terrified to say something because they’re worried about retaliation,” he said. “What this does is remove that as a hindrance.”

Named after Page and Allie Rice, a 21-year-old LSU student who was shot to death while driving home from a Government Street bar in September 2022, the initiative was created as a business-led movement to install high-tech equipment on buildings in areas with higher crime rates. The high-resolution devices, which cost a fraction of the price of most similar cameras if business and homeowners purchase them through the program, are linked to the Baton Rouge Police Department and the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office’s real-time crime centers, where they’re monitored by law enforcement.

Since its launch, Young said, the initiative has installed more than 100 cameras throughout the parish that have assisted police and deputies in several investigations. He pointed out that the camera installed at the intersection near where baby Devin was killed helped solve the murder of a 63-year-old man last June.

With the added help of programs like ZeroEyes, law enforcement officials say they’re optimistic the cameras will continue to aid police in solving crimes. And, in some instances, put a stop to violence before it happens.

“It’s programs like this and the cameras that have allowed us to be successful with the downward trend in violent crimes we’ve been experiencing over the last two years,” BRPD chief Thomas Morse said.

The software is already being used in some of Louisiana’s school systems. Late last year, Iberville Parish signed a $134,000 yearly contract with ZeroEyes in exchange for 800 cameras, which Superintendent Louis Voiron said Thursday are set to go live within the next several weeks.

In West Baton Rouge, which implemented the technology a few years ago, Superintendent Chandler Smith said previously that the software detected two possible weapons during his first months on the job. One turned out to be a toy gun, the other, a sheriff deputy’s firearm.

Concerns about privacy, bias

But some digital rights advocates worry about the technology’s unintended consequences.

Cooper Quintin, senior staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that even with human monitoring, programs like ZeroEyes can be rendered less effective through false negatives and algorithmic biases — flaws that can put civilians at risk.

“Even in an AI system, biases can still come into play,” he said. “Humans make the data that AI’s machine-learning algorithms are trained on, and any biases in that data — which there certainly will be, because humans have bias — will be reflected in the machine learning algorithm as well.”

Such technology is also expensive, he added, and comes with no guarantees of effectiveness. Quintin pointed to an instance in 2022 in which a 17-year-old student managed to walk past a similar AI weapons detection system at a high school in Utica, New York without setting off any alarms. The student then approached a fellow classmate, pulled out a hunting knife and stabbed the boy in the hands and back.

While the program failed to prevent the stabbing, Quintin pointed out, “it did identify a 7-year-old student’s lunch box as a bomb.”

Officials in other states have expressed similar concerns. In September, Utah’s State Board of Education voted to postpone approving a $3 million contract with security software AEGIX Global that would allow the company to install ZeroEyes in public schools across the state, citing concerns over the accuracy of the software and its ability to detect concealed weapons. The board ultimately voted a few months later to approve the partnership.

Quintin said he views the uptick in the use of surveillance technology as a sort of technological “gold rush.”

“We’re just kind of throwing random technologies at the wall to see what sticks instead of trying to understand the root causes of [violence],” he said.

During a November interview with The Advocate, ZeroEyes co-founder Sam Alaimo explained that the software is used on existing cameras to analyze thousands of images. If it detects a gun, he said, the image is sent to law enforcement officers, who verify if it’s a real weapon. The entire process takes between three and five seconds.

The founders of ZeroEyes have previously said they believe strongly in civil liberties and built the program in a way that prevents it from heavily monitoring civilians. The system does not use a “live feed” that constantly observes people and stores their data, they say; it only flags images for officials when a potential weapon is detected.

According to officials, ZeroEyes will be deployed throughout East Baton Rouge based on law enforcement’s assessment of high-need areas as part of a $20,000 yearly contract.

Young emphasized that the Baton Rouge Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Foundation is “still committed to investment,” noting that providing opportunities to Baton Rouge’s youth remains a crucial part of the city’s crime-prevention plans.

“While we cannot and should not attempt to arrest our way out of crime, we shouldn’t ignore the need to get bad actors off the streets,” Young said. He added: “Addressing public safety has to be a mix of both investment and enforcement.”


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