Screenshot from surveillance footage in the Clint Carter case, which prompted Public Defender Laura Bixby's records request.

Orleans Parish Public Defender Laura Bixby on Wednesday filed a lawsuit against the city of New Orleans for refusing to turn over records showing the locations of hundreds of crime cameras it has installed since 2017.

The city denied Bixby’s August public records request, claiming that disclosing the records could expose information related to terrorism prevention. But two civil rights groups, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the ACLU of Louisiana, who are representing Bixby, say that terrorism prevention is just an excuse.

The cameras, which feed live video to the Real-Time Crime Monitoring Center, are primarily used for run-of-the-mill law enforcement and criminal prosecutions, not terrorism prevention, the lawsuit says.

The suit names Collin Arnold, in his official capacity as the city’s director of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, as the defendant. Arnold’s department oversees the camera network. It asks an Orleans Parish Civil District Court judge to order the city to turn over the records Bixby requested.

Bixby says she needs the camera-location records to effectively represent her clients. Camera footage, her lawsuit says, has the potential to be used to establish a criminal suspect’s alibi, possibly away from the scene of a crime.

“Just as these cameras capture incriminating evidence, they can also help prove an alibi or support a claim of innocence,” Bixby said in a press release. “Public defenders should have the same right to know the whereabouts of this footage as other members of the criminal justice system.”

In addition, the lawsuit argues, the public has a legitimate interest in knowing more about how the cameras are deployed, given their capabilities. The crime cameras use powerful object-identification and tracking software and are capable of zooming in on people from hundreds of feet away.

Civil rights groups, including the ACLU, have repeatedly criticized the city’s use of real-time crime cameras, citing the potential for abuse by law enforcement, including privacy violations and targeting people based on their race. Former Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration opened the Real-Time Crime Center in late 2017, at the time planning to require every business with a liquor license to install cameras linked to the system. That plan was later abandoned, and has not been revived by Mayor LaToya Cantrell. However, Cantrell has embraced the technology and has sought to expand the network in other ways.

“The cameras have the capability of panning and zooming to provide very intimate details of our lives to the people operating them,” said Katie Schwartzmann, ACLU of Louisiana legal director in a press release. “We paid for these cameras with our tax dollars – and we have a right to know when we are being watched by the government. It’s unclear why city officials are refusing to provide this basic location information to the public.”

Cantrell’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Bixby requested the location records in August, after she obtained footage of a June 2018 drug bust where her client, Clint Carter, was arrested.

As The Lens previously reported, the footage leading up to Carter’s arrest shows him and several other men on a sidewalk. Though the camera was hundreds of feet away, it zooms in clearly on the group as if it were directly across the street. Police found no drugs on Carter, instead arresting him for allegedly carrying brass knuckles. Though he was later acquitted on a weapons charge and other charges related to the arrest, he was taken to prison for violating parole.

In August, Bixby filed a public records request for a map of publicly visible crime cameras, policies on how records are kept on past locations of the cameras — which have been moved periodically based on police priorities — and records and policies on staffing at the Real-Time Crime Monitoring Center.

The City Attorney’s Office responded several days later, providing the staffing-related records and saying records related to past locations did not exist, the response said.

The city denied the map request, however, saying camera location records were exempt from disclosure under the law because they involved “investigative technical equipment and physical security information created in the prevention of terrorist-related activity.”

The lawsuit argues that the cameras, rather than a terrorism-prevention tool, are “routinely used in the prosecution of crimes in the city,” as demonstrated in Carter’s case, as well as the city’s other day-to-day operations.

Real-Time Crime Monitoring Center employees “relay street flooding information to public works employees, traffic information to emergency vehicles en route, information about storm-related hazards, onscene information to police officers responding to calls for service. They also support administrative quality of life investigations,” the lawsuit says.

If active surveillance is primarily happening in response to 911 calls and other requests, the lawsuit says, it’s unclear how it would be effective to prevent terrorism.

“Ostensibly, camera operators are only responding to calls for service, not generally and actively surveilling the public,” it says.

Charles Maldonado

Charles Maldonado is the editor of The Lens. He previously worked as The Lens' government accountability reporter, covering local politics and criminal justice. Prior to joining The Lens, he worked for Gambit, New Orleans alternative newsweekly, where he covered city hall, criminal justice and public health. Before moving to New Orleans, he covered state and local government for weekly papers in Nashville and Knoxville, Tenn.