The city's Real Time Crime Monitoring Center. Credit: City of New Orleans

A New Orleans City Council committee on Thursday advanced a proposal that would expand the city’s controversial video surveillance program.

The City Council Budget, Audit, and Board of Review Committee unanimously voted to appropriate $100,000 to the New Orleans Office of Homeland Security for the installation of eight new crime cameras in Gentilly. The cameras would feed into the city’s Real Time Crime Monitoring Center, the city’s surveillance hub.

The proposal is part of the “Gentilly Development District crime camera plan” and was considered at the request of Mayor LaToya Cantrell. It will now advance to the full City Council for a final vote.

The city’s network of 24-hour surveillance cameras came to form in 2017 as part of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s $40 million citywide public safety plan. Last November, the city opened the $5 million Real Time Crime Monitoring Center and announced plans to install 250 cameras in “hot spots” around the city.

Critics decried the surveillance project as an invasion of personal privacy. The Office of Independent Police Monitor raised concerns that cameras could exacerbate racial biases within the criminal justice system. The Congress of Day Laborers, an immigrant rights group, worried that camera footage would be shared with federal immigration authorities.

In spite of those concerns, Landrieu pushed for even more surveillance. He called for an ordinance that would have required every property with a liquor license to install street-facing security cameras that would feed live footage to the Real Time Crime Monitoring Center, run by the city’s Office of Homeland Security. The plan would have added roughly 1,500 new cameras to the city’s system. The Landrieu administration eventually backed down from that ambitious plan.

The city’s Alcoholic Beverage Control board, meanwhile, has on several occasions entered consent decrees with delinquent bars that force them to install cameras that feed into the city’s monitoring center.

Cantrell said she wouldn’t revive Landrieu’s plan to force bars and restaurants to install city-linked cameras. But she has shown a desire to grow the camera network in other ways.

“I’m more excited about expanding it,” Cantrell said about the surveillance network in a recent interview with WDSU. “We are moving it, growing it,” she said, adding that the system was “a jewel in the city of New Orleans.”

In May, Cantrell supported a non-profit camera network’s plan to add 300 street facing cameras to their system and encouraged others to do the same. Her administration’s “first quarter check-ins” — released this month to mark Cantrell’s first three months in office — included a section on plans to integrate privately owned security cameras into the network.

“The ‘canopy’ of cameras integrated into the Real Time Crime Center is virtually unlimited as we utilize private sector cameras to supplement the city-owned cameras,” the report said.

The $100,000 in funding for the Gentilly Development District plan came out of last year’s state budget bill and was appropriated directly to the development district. The district is a state-created board that receives public dollars to help fund development in Gentilly, including the renovation of the Milne Boys Home into the NORDC headquarters.

State Sen. J.P. Morrell and state Rep. Joseph Bouie, members of the development district’s board, both said that a lack of adequate surveillance cameras in the area was at the top of their constituents’ complaints.

The locations of the eight new cameras are already lined up, Bouie said. Some of the eight locations were picked based on constituent complaints. He said the rest were chosen through consultations with the New Orleans Police Department 3rd District, which polices the Gentilly area.

Ursula Price, executive director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, worries that the public wasn’t adequately informed before the city started considering this project.

“It speaks to a pattern that I find disturbing. A lot of the surveillance expansion happens under the radar.”

When the surveillance network was first created, Price was the deputy police monitor at the New Orleans’ Independent Police Monitor’s Office. Then as now, she lamented about what she said was a lack of public input and transparency.

Morell said he shares some of the concerns about the cameras, but says that given the current state of crime and police shortages in the city, it’s a necessary measure.

“I do acknowledge it’s a problem,” he said. “But right now were just trying to mitigate with what we have.”

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...