On Monday, June 17, two New Orleans Police Department officers responded to an apparent auto burglary in Lakeview. The victim told police that he had parked his car on the street overnight. When he returned to it in the morning, he said the glove box was open and the ignition switch was broken off and missing.
The officers noticed two surveillance cameras mounted to a public light pole on the block. They looked very much like hundreds of crime cameras that have been installed across New Orleans since 2017. Those are owned and controlled by the city, all transmitting video to the Real-Time Crime Monitoring Center on North Rampart Street.
In addition to being attached to city-controlled property, the cameras on the Lakeview light pole bore the New Orleans Police Department’s logo.
The problem: They weren’t city-owned cameras. The officers didn’t know who owned them.
“The camera mounted at 6119 Vicksburg is not a City-owned camera, is not integrated to the Real-Time Crime Center, and is unauthorized to be on the light pole,” said Laura Mellem, the public engagement manager at the New Orleans Office of Homeland Security, which oversees the city’s surveillance system.
Nor were they owned by the Lakeview Crime Prevention District, a security district that maintains cameras in the neighborhood, LCPD President Brian Anderson told The Lens in an interview.
“That is without a doubt not one of ours,” Anderson said.
The victim of the alleged car burglary told the police that the cameras belonged to Jeff Burkhardt, according to the police report.
Burkhardt, whose wife owns a house on the block, is the vice president and chief operations officer for Active Solutions, LLC, a crime camera supplier and installation contractor for the city. The camera on the block bears a resemblance to Active Solutions’ Neighborhood WatchCam model. The Neighborhood WatchCam draws its power from streetlights, according to the company’s website.
The victim who identified the camera as belonging to Burkhardt did not respond to requests for comment from The Lens. And NOPD spokesman Gary Scheets declined to comment on whether the police confirmed that Burkhardt owned or controlled the camera, noting that he was not charged with any crime.
The light pole is the closest one to a house formerly owned by Burkhardt. His wife, Samantha Burkhardt, assumed full ownership of it last year as part of a separation of property agreement, according to court records.
Reached by phone Wednesday, Burkhardt at first declined to comment, saying he would not participate in “fake news.” He later said that he did not know who the cameras belonged to, then, when pressed, again said he would decline to comment.
Burkhard repeatedly emphasized, however, that Active Solutions wasn’t involved in the purchase or installation of the camera, saying, “My company had absolutely nothing to do with it whatsoever.”
“I can tell you that I did not purchase the camera. My company did not purchase the camera, so it does not belong to me or the company,” he said. “I do not own this camera. My company does not own the camera.”
Asked if he had anything to do with the camera being there, however, he declined to answer, saying only, “Asked and answered.”
Samantha Burkhardt spoke briefly to The Lens by phone but did not answer any questions. She said she would call back but did not.
In a phone call on Thursday, Active Solutions President and CEO Brian Fitzpatrick asked for a photograph of the cameras, which The Lens provided. He also questioned whether the streetlight pole was truly city property. He said he would respond Thursday afternoon but had yet to provide a statement before this article was published.
The Lens first contacted Burkhardt, who said he was out of town, on Wednesday afternoon, after confirming that the cameras were at the location and photographing them. By Thursday morning, the cameras had been removed.
It’s unclear how long they were there. But they appear in a Google Street View photo dated January 2019.
“This is exactly the type of thing that worries me about surveillance cameras,” said Bruce Hamilton, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Louisiana. “And It points to the fact that these tools are very easily used for corrupt and inappropriate uses.”
Hamilton is currently representing an attorney with the Orleans Public Defenders, Laura Bixby, in a lawsuit against the city. They are demanding that the city release the locations of its surveillance cameras. Bixby won the case in Civil District Court last month. But the camera locations haven’t been released yet, and the city is appealing the decision.
“If that map were publicly available, people could see that this isn’t a public camera,” Hamilton said. “It looks like it’s a counterfeit with the logo on it.”
Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this story.
Hamilton, privacy advocates, and city officials have all spoken in the past about how video surveillance comes with the potential for misuse if the proper safeguards aren’t in place.
When the surveillance system was first being launched in 2017, the New Orleans Independent Police Monitor released a public letter that listed some of the potential ways the system could be misused. It said that a video surveillance system could be utilized to improperly focus on a person’s body. It pointed to two cases in England where camera operators were caught inappropriately focusing in on women.
It also pointed to the 2017 guilty plea of a former New York police officer who used police resources to surveil and stalk his ex-girlfriend.
“I want to know how it got there and who put it up and how long it was there before it was taken down,” Hamilton said. “This is incredible to me.”