A state appeals court on Thursday affirmed a lower court’s ruling that records showing the locations of the city of New Orleans’ real-time crime cameras are public and should be released, dismissing the city’s arguments that the records can’t be disclosed because they’re related to intelligence-gathering and terrorism prevention.
Laura Bixby, an attorney for the Orleans Parish Public Defenders, filed a public records request for several records records related to the city’s surveillance camera network, which has added hundreds of cameras across the city since then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu opened a new surveillance hub, called the Real-Time Crime Monitoring Center, in 2017.
Bixby sought the records after she obtained crime-camera footage of a drug bust in which her client, Clint Carter, was arrested.
As The Lens previously reported, the footage demonstrated how the cameras are capable of zooming in clearly on people from hundreds of feet away. The case also raised questions about how law enforcement was using the camera network: whether it was a “complaint-based system,” as the city has claimed in the past, or whether the police were using the cameras to actively monitor residents and initiate investigations.
Bixby asked the New Orleans Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, which runs the Real-Time Crime Monitoring Center, for records and policies on staffing at the monitoring center, policies on how records are kept on past locations of the cameras and a map of publicly visible crime cameras.
The city provided the staffing records and said the records on past locations didn’t exist. It denied the request for the map, however, saying camera location records were exempt from disclosure under the state public records law because they involved “investigative technical equipment and physical security information created in the prevention of terrorist-related activity.”
The city has previously granted other requests for certain information about the surveillance system, including records showing the types of software the system uses. It has routinely denied others, such as requests for existing footage — even when it is being temporarily stored — if it has not been labeled for “archiving” by a city department.
Bixby sued Collin Arnold, in his official capacity as the city’s director of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, in February. Bixby is represented by the ACLU of Louisiana and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In June, Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Ethel Julien ruled in Bixby’s favor. The judge said that the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness is not a law enforcement agency and that “there is no evidence that NOHSEP is a subsidiary of the [federal] Department of Homeland Security or that the publically-visible cameras are used in the prevention of terrorism.”
The city appealed the ruling, but in an opinion released Thursday, the majority of a three-judge panel at the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal voted to uphold Julien’s ruling. Judge Terri Love dissented. Her reasoning was not published on the court’s website as of Friday morning.
In the appeal process, the city argued, for the first time, that the maps do not exist. Because the city did not make that argument when the case first went before Julien, the appeals court judges dismissed it.
As to the city’s argument that the Office of Homeland Security qualifies as an intelligence or investigative agency, the majority found that the state law that created local offices of homeland security “does not establish that NOHSEP shall be responsible for intelligence, or intelligence gathering on behalf of New Orleans, or investigatory duties.”
Instead, citing the city’s own description of the department, the judges found that it acts only as an aid to the New Orleans Police Department, as well as other emergency departments, “not an intelligence agency engaged in the collection of intelligence information of ‘an enemy.’”
“NOHSEP has several components: none of these components are focused on intelligence gathering,” the ruling says.
“We asked for the locations of 400 cameras because the public has the right to know where they are being watched,” said Liyah Brown, senior staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, in a Friday press release. “The right to public records is something all Louisianans possess under the state Constitution and today the Court of Appeals agreed. The city must, by law, be transparent in the use of our government and tax-payer dollars and adhere to public records requests.”
Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s office did not immediately respond to questions on whether the city plans to turn over the records — if they exist — or if it will appeal the ruling to the Louisiana Supreme Court.
This story was updated after publication to include a comment from the Southern Poverty Law Center.