Government & Politics
 

June drug bust shows potential pitfalls of citywide surveillance system, defense attorneys say

City officials have touted a growing, centralized video surveillance system as a way to build better cases for prosecutors and catch criminals as technicians monitor live footage. They’ve claimed it is a “complaint based” system that, for the most part, searches for relevant footage only after a complaint has been made or a crime has been committed.

But it appears that the NOPD is also actively using live feeds from the crime cameras to coordinate proactive operations such as drug busts.

About a year after the creation of the Real Time Crime Monitoring Center, surveillance footage is starting to trickle into the Orleans Public Defenders office as it’s submitted as evidence against their clients. One of those clients is Clint Carter.

Carter was arrested in June for trespassing, simple assault, and illegally carrying a weapon (brass knuckles) during a police surveillance operation. The police report says that a “known undercover officer” had been observing Carter throughout the day “due to numerous complaints of drug activity” in the area. It says the undercover officer saw Carter going into an alley, reaching into his underwear, and pulling out an object for a “hand to hand transaction, which is indicative of narcotics sales.”

Laura Bixby, Carter’s public defender, told The Lens that she’s not sure whether an undercover officer was actually on the scene or whether the police were solely relying on crime camera footage. What she does know is that one of the city’s crime cameras was pointed right at Carter, and the footage shows exactly what’s described in the incident report, right before three police SUVs roll up to detain and search Carter.

They didn’t find any drugs. But they did find brass knuckles, according to the police report. The assault charge came later at the University Medical Center while, according to Bixby, Carter was shackled to a hospital bed.

“They don’t even mention the [crime camera] footage in the report,” Bixby said. “But clearly they were using it because someone is manually zooming it in. Clearly someone is watching it.”

The City of New Orleans

Screenshot of surveillance footage when the camera is zoomed out

The City of New Orleans

Screenshot of surveillance footage when the camera is zoomed in

She said she only learned of the existence of the footage when it was sent to her through discovery along with the body camera footage.

“The police were very unclear about whether this ‘known undercover officer’ was actually on the scene or whether he was at the real time crime center watching the cameras, or somewhere else entirely,” she said. “They wouldn’t say this person’s name or what they were doing from where, and claimed it was to protect his undercover status. So I honestly am not sure.”

When asked if there was in fact an undercover officer at the scene, NOPD spokesperson Gary Scheets told The Lens that the “NOPD does not publicly discuss investigative tactics employed during surveillance operations… In the case that is the subject of this inquiry, investigators conducted a surveillance operation from an undisclosed location that provided a clear and unobstructed view of the events that transpired.”

For Bixby, this raises concerns about how the NOPD is labeling their video surveillance operations in police reports. She also believes the surveillance and search and subsequent arrest may have violated the Fourth Amendment and infringed upon Carter’s reasonable expectation of privacy.

She said that the surveillance system gives the police powers that far exceed the capacities of a human police officer: zooming in with sharp clarity, software that can search through thousands of videos for specific objects in minutes, and the ability to be in hundreds of places at once, vigilantly watching 24 hours a day. The camera that filmed Carter was roughly 500 feet away from the incident (a football field is 360 feet long).

Carter was found not guilty on all three charges on Nov. 2, but the new arrest was a violation of his parole. He is now back in prison and slated to stay there for more than three years, until February 2022.

“I feel like I ain’t supposed to be in jail right now,” Carter told The Lens on a phone call from the Avoyelles Correctional Center in Cottonport, about 3 hours northwest of New Orleans. “It was a false arrest. A false claim. And I feel like I’m in jail doing time for nothing.”

Critics of the city’s surveillance program say Carter’s story is a perfect example of how the cameras will exacerbate existing injustices in the criminal justice system and compound the worst tendencies of the police. The NOPD is still bound by a consent decree with the Department of Justice for various civil rights infractions, including “a pattern of stops, searches, and arrests that violate the Fourth Amendment.”

In 2017, the office of the consent decree monitor audited NOPD stops, searches, and arrests and found possible consent decree violations in 20% of police body camera videos they viewed.

“This remains an area of concern,” the report said.

Even some proponents of neighborhood crime cameras are nervous about how the NOPD will utilize them.

“I don’t necessarily trust the police,” said Eric Songy, the Chairman of the Algiers Neighborhood Presidents Council, who advocates for increased surveillance throughout the city. “I don’t necessarily trust that they’ve got the best motives or trust that they will handle things properly if they’re the ones in control. Police, sometimes, can overstep their boundaries.”

‘They was lying from the get go’

At the time of the arrest, Carter said he was trying to get to the hospital. He suffers from diabetic nerve pain, and said his feet and legs were swelling up.

“I was waiting for a ride to get the hospital when they ran up on me,” he said.

After officers pulled up and detained Carter, “no narcotics were recovered in the vicinity,” according to the police report.

They ended up arresting Carter for trespassing “per request of the property owner.” But the address at which Carter was supposedly trespassing is across the street from where he was standing when he was arrested. In the video, he never approaches that house. And Bixby says that during the trial, the officers admitted that the property owner never made a complaint in the first place.

“After I confronted the officers with the fact that this person wasn’t home and that they had no calls from her, they claimed some church that owns some other properties on the block had complained,” said Bixby. “But they couldn’t say which properties, or what the name of the church was, or when they complained, or if they ever complained about Mr. Carter.”

The officers also searched the house of the property owner they said made the complaint, claiming there was an “aroma of marijuana emanating from within.” They didn’t find any narcotics there either.

“We also do not publicly identify citizens that come forward and alert investigators to potential criminal activity,” Scheets said.

“I’ve been living on them blocks all my life,” Carter said. “I never had a problem with none of the neighbors or nobody in that neighborhood. So they was lying from the get-go.”

After the arrest, Carter was taken to the hospital, where he was booked on another charge: simple assault.

“The arrested subject took a hospital blanket and covered his entire body with it,” says the police report. “The officer had reasonable suspicion [Carter] could be attempting to discard narcotics.”

Officer Omar Rodriguez then “adjusted” the blanket so he could see Carter’s hands. But according to the report, officers had already searched the inside of Carter’s pants and found nothing.

“You know, it was cold in the hospital,” Carter said. “They had already stripped search me and didn’t find no drugs on me. So I was like, ‘why can’t I get underneath the blanket in the heat, I’m cold. Y’all already stripped searched me and seen I ain’t got no drugs on me, so what’s the problem?’”

According to the police report, Carter “became irate,” chastising the officer and “swinging his right hand and pulling on his left hand.” But Bixby says that during the trial, Officer Rodriguez admitted that Carter had been shackled to the bed. The police report says that Rodriguez was standing “about five feet away from” Carter. Nonetheless, Carter was saddled with another charge.

Although Carter was found not guilty on all three charges, he remains in prison. He was released from prison on parole in January, after serving time for cocaine possession. Getting arrested on a new charge was a violation of his parole, and he now faces another three years in prison.

Lawyer: Search and surveillance violated Carter’s rights

During the trial, Bixby submitted a motion to suppress the prosecution’s evidence, saying that the original search and arrest violated Carter’s rights.

“Mr. Carter was detained, handcuffed, frisked, and searched as a direct result of invasive surveillance conducted by the New Orleans Police Department,” the motion says.

Bixby told the Lens that her Fourth Amendment objections stem from the fact that the surveillance system gives the police powers “beyond human capability.”

The mounted police camera is located at least one and half football fields away from the incident. But given its capabilities, it might as well have been right across the street. Just under three minutes into the video, it closes in on Carter, showing him go into the alley, come out and speak to another man. Carter can then clearly be seen sticking his hands into his pants.

“It’s an argument based on a line of US supreme court cases that says that technology that allows police officers to do something that they could have done before is ok on a limited scale, but not on an enormous, shocking, pervasive scale,” she said.

There are currently 340 cameras wired into the Real-Time Crime Center. But the city is building a far more extensive network.

“We will grow,” said Mayor LaToya Cantrell at a recent press conference. “We’ve only scratched the surface.”

Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration has enthusiastically supported increased surveillance, with plans to add more city crime cameras through various avenues, including a state neighborhood development grant and even an anti-litter program. But the main source of new cameras will come from public-private partnerships.

This week, Cantrell held a press conference to celebrate the first anniversary of the Crime Center and announce SafeCam Platinum, an effort to link thousands of privately owned cameras to the system.

There are 6,000 cameras currently registered with the basic SafeCam program, which serves as a database of private cameras, but doesn’t stream directly to the city’s monitoring center. At the press conference, the director of the city’s office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness said that many of these are capable of linking to the monitoring center.

“The ‘canopy’ of cameras integrated into the Real-Time Crime Center is virtually unlimited as we utilize private sector cameras to supplement City-owned cameras,” says a presentation from the city’s office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, which oversees the crime camera monitoring center.

When the police detained Carter, they provided two justifications in their report: “suspicion of narcotics sales and the fact that the subject was trespassing.” The video does not show Carter trespassing, and it is unclear who told the police that there was potential drug trafficking in the area.

The undercover officer cited in the report was never identified or called to testify.

“When I tried to ask questions to clarify whether there was an undercover officer stationed somewhere on the street or were they just watching the footage or what were they doing, they said they can’t answer any questions about the undercover because that might reveal his identity and his tactics,” Bixby said. “And the judge let them not answer any questions.”

Instead, the state presented the surveillance footage as evidence of the officers’ suspicion that a crime was taking place.

“The surveillance did not reveal evidence of Mr. Carter actually committing any crime,” Bixby’s motion to suppress says.

The judge never ruled on that motion because Carter was found not guilty before it was considered in court.

“Regardless of whether there ended up being a Fourth Amendment violation in my case, it’s not just about legal theory, it’s about the privacy of all these people on the block,” Bixby said. “You see in the footage, it’s not limited to Mr. Carter. They’re zooming in on random other people.”

In the video, whoever is operating the camera zooms in on passing pedestrians. At one point, the camera trails a woman until she walks into her home. The camera also adjusts to focus on someone walking out onto their porch.

From the Avoyelles Parish prison, Carter said he is taking classes to try and reduce his sentence, including one called “Inside-Outside Dad.” Carter has three children, aged 22, 13 and 11.

“I respect the fact that the cameras are up there because they need the cameras for certain situations like murders and things like that,” Carter said. “But you’ve got the officers using the cameras for the wrong reasons. Man, it’s just, I don’t know.”

“I gotta go back to new Orleans. So I gotta go back and face that. I gotta go back and face them. I already know from here on out when I go back home, it’s gonna be a problem with the same officers that arrested me this time.”

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About 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 Pacific Standard. He was recently awarded a fellowship from the Heinrich Boll Foundation, which he used to report on water scarcity, division, and colonialism in Cyprus.