Organizer Marvin Arnold speaks at a Oct. 7 rally organized by Eye on Surveillance, urging the City Council to adopt new surveillance restrictions. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

Local citizen watchdog group Eye on Surveillance hosted a rally outside City Hall on Wednesday to urge the City Council to pass an ordinance that would ban four specific types of surveillance technology in New Orleans, including facial recognition and predictive policing software.

The ordinance was first introduced by Councilman Jason Williams in July. It has yet to go to a vote. 

“This ordinance is something we look at as an opportunity to protect all New Orleanians,” said Eye on Surveillance member Renard Bridgewater. 

The rally included speakers from the ACLU of Louisiana and Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition. And there were 34 total organizations that signed onto a letter from Eye on Surveillance to the council on Wednesday, including Orleand Public Defenders, the Vera Institute, Voice of the Experienced, Take ‘Em Down NOLA, the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans and Court Watch NOLA. 

“Surveillance does not equal safety,” the letter said. “In fact, given the racist history of surveillance and the current racial biases built into surveillance technologies, the city’s use of surveillance technologies to monitor and control its residents actually decreases safety for Black and brown New Orleanians and erodes public trust in a government meant to protect us all.”

The ordinance was drafted earlier this year in consultation between Eye on Surveillance and Councilman Jason Williams, who is currently running for Orleans Parish District Attorney. The ordinance was first discussed by the City Council Smart and Sustainable Cities Committee in July, but was met with heavy skepticism by several council members, who said they heard from more constituents who wanted greater surveillance in the city than those who wanted restrictions. The committee did not take a vote on whether to recommend the ordinance to the full council. 

Not much has happened with the ordinance since then. But Marvin Arnold, an organizer with Eye on Surveillance, says that he expects the council to take a vote at its next full meeting on October 15. Williams’ Chief of Staff Keith Lampkin said they also expected a vote next week. Arnold said the group planned to hold another rally on Oct. 13 outside the city’s surveillance hub, the Real Time Crime Center, which is located next to the NOPD’s 1st District on North Rampart Street. 

But the ordinance that the council will consider next week will look a lot different than what is currently filed with the council. 

Under the original ordinance, the council would need to explicitly grant permission for city departments to employ any piece of surveillance equipment. Even then, the approval would only last for three years before the city would need to submit another “surveillance use request.” And city departments would need to submit annual reports on how the technology was used, including “the demographics of the surveillance technology targets, including but not limited to race or ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status.”

None of that will be included in the updated ordinance, Lampkin confirmed. An outright ban on automatic license plate readers is also being removed from the ordinance, he said. 

What remains are blanket bans on four specific pieces of surveillance technology: facial recognition, characteristic tracking software, predictive policing and “stingray” cell-site simulators that police have used to gather data from people’s cell phones. 

The city has claimed that it doesn’t currently use stingrays or facial or characteristic recognition software. Arnold argued that the ordinance was still important for assuring the public and keeping those restrictions in place for future administrations that may seek more expansive surveillance.

“The city again has said they’re not going to do this, but the importance again is that there’s no legal framework for this. And so we need to hold them accountable and make sure that in law, if a different council for administration gets in, that we’re able to keep these restrictions.”

The Real Time Crime Center has a policy against the use of facial recognition, and at the July council meeting the city claimed that it stopped using its main characteristic tracking software, called Briefcam, in late 2019. 

New Orleans famously participated in a free, experimental program under former-Mayor Mitch Landrieu through a partnership with Palantir, a CIA-funded software company founded by tech billionaire Peter Thiel. That program, which the ACLU characterized as predictive policing, ended under Landrieu. 

But as The Lens has reported, Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration almost immediately started a new initiative called the “Gun Violence Reduction Task Force” that aimed to identify residents at high risk of involvement in a gun crime and delivering “impactful social interventions” rather than a direct criminal justice response. 

It’s not clear whether this program would fall under a predictive policing ban. But in an ordinance amendment filed by Williams, predictive policing technology is defined as “software used to predict information or trends about crime or criminality in the past or future, including but not limited to the characteristics or profile of any person(s) likely to commit a crime, the identity of any person(s) likely to commit crime, the locations or frequency of crime, or the person(s) impacted by predicted crime.”

Arnold said he’d have to know more about the Gun Violence Reduction Task Force to offer an opinion on whether the ban should apply to the program. But he said that in general, there was an effort by some council members to limit the definition of surveillance to just those technologies directly and primarily employed for law enforcement.

“So there’s a lot of effort to limit it, to only consider it surveillance if it was used in a criminal proceeding, which would really defeat how all of this got started with the smart cities initiative.”

Smart Cities 

Williams first announced that he would begin working with Eye on Surveillance to craft a surveillance ordinance in March during a Smart and Sustainable Cities Committee meeting. At the time, the council was considering a Smart Cities Pilot program that would have included the installation of 146 “smart street lights” in the Central Business District.

While the lights weren’t pitched as a law enforcement tool, they would still be equipped with video cameras and audio detection technology, bringing up concerns for Eye on Surveillance. The same street lights were installed in San Diego in 2016 primarily for non-police uses. It wasn’t until 2018 that the San Diego police started utilizing the footage for their investigations. 

At the March meeting, Williams announced that the council would press pause on the pilot program until they passed a comprehensive surveillance ordinance. 

At the time, Eye on Surveillance organizers used the pilot as an example of how hard it can be for the community to track the growth of surveillance, especially when surveillance capabilities are expanded through programs that are seemingly unrelated to law enforcement. 

“I guarantee that instead of saying they were having a meeting about smart cities, they said they were having a meeting about adding 146 more cameras, a lot more people would attend,” he said. “Overall, the onus has been on the community to find out the specifics rather than them being forthcoming.”

That’s what made the reporting and approval process so important. But it appears that won’t make into the final ordinance next week.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of pushback from the majority of City Council,” Arnold said at the Wednesday rally. “They were completely resistant to getting the ordinance as originally written, even after several rounds of amendments. Where we currently stand is that the place with the most resistance was the approval and oversight piece, so general guardrails on all of this technology.”

So instead, the ordinance will rely on the four specific bans on existing technology, though Williams had earlier called for legislation that would anticipate new, unanticipated advances. 

“The technology is moving so much faster than government is and our regulations,” Williams said at the March meeting. “We have to take one step back … to make sure that as we utilize the growing technology, that we have put regulations in place at the time, if not before, the technology is installed to make sure they’re not abused.”

In a statement, Williams said that the ordinance, in addition to the four explicit bans, would require better protection of data and “provide greater transparency surrounding the City’s use of data and technology.” It’s unclear what transparency measures will make it into the final version of the ordinance. 

Arnold said that officials from the Cantrell administration pushed back on the reporting and approval processes set up in the original ordinance. Cantrell’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“I think honestly there’s a philosophical difference from what some in the administration are espousing, where they just feel that we should be trusting the vesting government and following up with problems after the fact. Where we’re saying no we want to inherently make an approval process so it gets stopped up front.”

Eye on Surveillance organizers said they supported the prospective ordinance, and saw it as an entry point to further conversations with the council and administration to craft more comprehensive regulations. Arnold said that they wanted the council to explicitly state that more regulations would be needed past this ordinance.

“We think this is an opportunity to hopefully work with them to define strong oversight standards,” Arnold said. 

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...