A city surveillance camera, from August 2019. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens) Credit: Michael Isaac Stein / The Lens

UPDATE (4/2/2020): The city has made a map of the cameras available online.

The Louisiana Supreme Court on Monday upheld lower court rulings that the city of New Orleans should disclose the locations of its public surveillance cameras. That decision was originally made in Civil District Court last May and upheld on appeal by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal in December

The Supreme Court declined to reconsider the Fourth Circuit ruling, the ACLU of Louisiana, which represents the plaintiff in the case, announced Thursday. 

The city tried to overturn the appeals court ruling by asking the Louisiana Supreme Court to take up the case. 

“That was the station of last resort for the city,” said Bruce Hamilton, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Louisiana who tried the case. “That means the judgement by the lower court is final.”

As of December 2019,  the city claimed to have access to live video feeds from 442 city-owned cameras, along with 331 private camera feeds through the city’s Safecam Platinum program. Hamilton said he expected the court ruling to apply to the city-owned cameras, but not the private ones. 

The lawsuit was first filed In February 2019 by Laura Bixby, an attorney with Orleans Public Defenders. Bixby had submitted a public records request to the city of New Orleans, which included a request for a map of the city’s public surveillance cameras. The request was specifically for a map of “publically visible … real time crime cameras.” 

The City of New Orleans denied the request, arguing that the location data was exempt from the state’s public records law because it was related to terrorism prevention. Arguing before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, the city also said that the requested location maps didn’t exist. 

Bixby sought the records after she obtained crime-camera footage of a drug bust in which her client, Clint Carter, was arrested. (The police found no drugs on Carter.)

As The Lens previously reported, the footage showed just how powerful the magnification was on the cameras, causing privacy concerns for Bixby. The footage also cast doubt on whether the city was, as it claimed, using the cameras as a “complaint-based” system, where footage was only accessed after a crime or complaint was reported. The footage of Carter appeared to show that the cameras were actively used to coordinate the drug bust.

Bixby was also concerned about the unequal benefits the cameras provided to the District Attorney’s Office over defense attorneys. 

Video flowing through the city’s Real Time Crime Center — built in 2017 under former Mayor Mitch Landrieu — is saved for 30 days unless marked for archiving. But Bixby, and the rest of the public defenders, don’t know the locations of the cameras. So if there was recorded footage exonerating one of Bixby’s clients, she likely wouldn’t know it existed, let alone get it archived before it is erased after 30 days. 

“This ruling represents a victory for all New Orleans citizens who want to know when and how their government is surveilling them,” Bixby said in an emailed statement. “It also enables the public defender’s office to quickly and efficiently preserve video that might prove our client’s innocence, which is all the more important in this present moment when our investigators cannot safely go out in the field.”

Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Hamilton said he hadn’t been in discussion with the city yet, and didn’t know exactly how or when the camera map data would be released to the public. 

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...