One of New Orleans' city-owned surveillance cameras on the corner of Esplanade Ave. and Decatur St. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

New documents obtained by the ACLU of Louisiana through a public records request are shedding more light on how the New Orleans Police Department utilizes facial recognition software — a practice that the NOPD had denied using for years until admitting it last month.

As The Lens reported, the city has justified its previous denials on the basis that it didn’t actually own facial recognition software. Nonetheless, the NOPD has been using facial recognition since at least 2018 by tapping its intelligence partnerships with federal and state agencies, including the FBI and Louisiana State Police.

“After years of assurances from city officials that facial recognition was not used in New Orleans, the ACLU of Louisiana has obtained nearly 50 pages of email requests from New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) to the Louisiana State Police (LSP) Fusion Center asking LSP to use facial recognition on various photos and video stills,” said a Monday press release from the ACLU of Louisiana. 

Prior to The Lens’ report, the city denied a November ACLU records request for internal communications about the use of facial recognition, saying simply that the department doesn’t use facial recognition.

The ACLU re-submitted its request after The Lens story was published, and this time the NOPD sent some, but not all, relevant documents. The NOPD did not respond to requests for comment on this story. 

The emails show that the NOPD has been using the technology since at least 2018 through a formal process set up with a Louisiana state intelligence agency. And it’s not clear that it is only used for violent crimes, as the NOPD had indicated in a November statement to The Lens. In one instance, an NOPD detective appears to be trying to identify four demonstrators who were, according to the detective’s email, trying to “provoke” police officers. 

The emails also give more insight into a formalized police intelligence relationship between the NOPD and the Louisiana State Analytical and Fusion Exchange, or LA-SAFE, that gives the NOPD access not only to facial recognition, but to other tools as well such as “social media checks” and data from the federal US Department of the Treasury Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. 

Just weeks before the NOPD’s use of facial recognition became public, the ACLU of Louisiana submitted a public records request for documents and communications “regarding the use of facial recognition” going back to 2016. The city closed the request in early November without handing over any documents, saying “The Police Department does not employ facial recognition software.”

City officials have made similar claims in the past, both to the public and to inquiring elected officials, on the basis that the city doesn’t actually own any facial recognition software itself. However, as the NOPD told The Lens in November, the police have been tapping partnerships with outside agencies, including the FBI and LA-SAFE, to utilize facial recognition software. 

The ACLU re-submitted its public record request after that information became public. This time, the city came back with 50 pages of emails between NOPD detectives and LA-SAFE. 

The information is far from comprehensive. In its response to the ACLU, the city said the request was “unreasonably burdensome and expensive,” but that, “Nevertheless, the Police Department is searching its files for communications between it and the Louisiana State Police that are responsive to your request.” 

The documents still don’t appear to fully satisfy the ACLU’s request. For example, there is a gap in the emails from Dec. 2018 to Jan. 2020. 

Even so, the emails give some new insight into how the NOPD utilizes its partnership with LA-SAFE. The emails show that the NOPD and LSP established a formal process for requesting facial recognition and other intelligence services in 2018 that includes standardized request forms. And they show that facial recognition is utilized by the NOPD for more than just violent crimes. 

In November, in response to a question about what the NOPD used facial recognition for, an NOPD spokesman told The Lens that “on particular violent cases the NOPD relies on help from our federal partners.” The emails obtained by the ACLU of Louisiana don’t include any direct requests to a federal agency like the FBI, only requests made to LA-SAFE, though the FBI is an LA-SAFE partner. And those requests aren’t exclusively related to violent crimes.

There are a total of 12 emailed facial recognition requests from NOPD detectives to LA-SAFE included in the documents. 

In one facial recognition request, an NOPD detective includes an attachment named “Simple Robbery perps.pdf” in his facial recognition request. In another, a detective appears to try and identify a subject in a gun theft investigation

In a third email, an officer is trying to identify “four white males” with video cameras who, according to the email, were outside the NOPD 8th District station “bantering their usual rhetoric” and “attempting to incite officers.” The incident occured on March 21, and there appeared to be concern around potential exposure to the coronavirus. 

But the email doesn’t indicate whether any crime was committed, whether there was an open case regarding the incident or for what purpose the NOPD needed to identify the four men. An online database of police incidents shows that officers did not follow up the incident with a report. 

The documents include a request form that NOPD officers have to fill out and send to LA-SAFE to access facial recognition services. The document shows that facial recognition services can be requested to identify suspected criminals, victims and potential witnesses to a crime or individuals who can’t identify themselves, including dead and unconscious people. 

The NOPD told The Lens in November that it didn’t currently have any internal policy of its own regulating when the NOPD can utilize facial recognition. 

The New Orleans City Council, led by Councilman Jason Williams, has been debating an ordinance that would place some restrictions on the use of surveillance for several months. The draft ordinance has been through several iterations over that time, but all of them have included a ban on the use of facial recognition. The council’s latest attempt to pass the ordinance was derailed by the facial recognition revelation.

“That kind of 11th hour revelation, for lack of a better word, when we’ve been told the opposite, obviously impacted our process,” a spokesman for Williams told The Lens in November. “But it’s new information that we’re going to engage with them over the next couple weeks to find out what the hell is going on and how far reaching it is.”

In December, Williams won the election for New Orleans District Attorney, and will vacate his council seat to take his new position in January. It’s unclear whether he will try to get the ordinance passed before then, or if the City Council will continue those efforts in his absence. 

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...