NOPD vehicles parked outside of an old city jail building. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The agency that runs the New Orleans 911 and 311 systems — the Orleans Parish Communications District — is leading the charge to create a new police records management system that will, in the words of OPCD’s director, “revolutionize how our law enforcement agencies share information back and forth” and “change the way we do business.”

“They will have the greatest technology as far as analytics are concerned and really making sure the officers on the street, and all of the agencies have the tools to do what they need to do,” OPCD Director Tyrell Morris said at an OPCD board meeting earlier this month.

The software Morris hopes to procure comes from Swedish tech company Hexagon AB. To start, it would create a new, cloud-based data repository for the New Orleans Police Department’s extensive records. It would also provide analytic software to make sense of all that data using services from Microsoft’s Azure division — an advanced set of tools that includes artificial intelligence and machine learning and a major supplier of cloud-based surveillance software, according to reporting from The Intercept. 

But one local surveillance watchdog group questioned why there was no public bid process for the multi-million dollar system. Organizers with the group also raised initial concerns about the software’s potential impact on the city’s police surveillance capabilities and the ease with which outside law enforcement agencies can access data from the NOPD. 

“The people at OPCD do a fantastic job and innovation is key to their work. But transparency, public data protection, and process are critical as well,” Marvin Arnold, an organizer with the local Eye on Surveillance coalition, told The Lens.

Procured by OPCD, used by the city

Responding to The Lens’ questions about why there was no public selection process, Morris noted that state law doesn’t require OPCD to go through formal public bidding for this type of contract. He said the agency considers it a professional services contract — a category that covers specialized work performed by highly skilled professionals, like attorneys or engineers. 

But OPCD isn’t procuring the system for itself. Although OPCD chose the software and will pay the upfront $2.2 million installation cost, the system will be primarily used and maintained by the city, specifically the New Orleans Police Department. 

If the NOPD had procured the software directly, city law would have forced it to go through a competitive selection process, including a selection committee that holds public meetings to make its selection. But OPCD, as a semi-independent state-created agency, is not beholden to those requirements.

Morris said that OPCD, in coordination with the city, was simply acting as the “project planner” and “procuring body” of the new technology. OPCD is also funding the project by fully covering the upfront cost. Through a financing plan, Morris plans to spread the cost out over five years of $494,000 annual payments. 

After the software is set up, the responsibility for paying for and maintaining the system would fall to the city government and NOPD, Morris said. The annual cost for the NOPD would be $500,000, but those annual fees could grow if or when the system takes on additional police departments. The details of who will pay those additional fees, and how much other police departments will have to pay to join the new system, are not yet set in stone. 

The Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office would also have the option to use the system for its jail records for another $400,000 a year. Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office spokesman Phil Stelly told The Lens that the office hadn’t come to a final decision yet. 

The Lens asked Morris how the city would adopt an annual maintenance contract for the service without going through a competitive bidding process.

“We haven’t talked about it in great detail,” Morris said. “But some things on the table I know the [city chief administrative officer] and the chief procurement officer all have the ability to grant exceptions to city policy.”

From 2010 to 2014, the requirement for a competitive selection process for professional services contracts was established through an executive order by then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu. But in the November 2014 election, New Orleans voters added the requirement to the City Charter — the foundational law for the city of New Orleans. 

Specific procedures for competitive bidding, such as selection criteria and the makeup of the committees, are still determined by executive order and subject to limited waivers — including for situations where a waiver is “in the city’s best interests.” But it’s not clear whether city administrators can waive the charter requirement for a competitive selection process    altogether. The charter only provides for exceptions on emergency purchases.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s office did not respond to a request for comment on this story, referring all The Lens’ questions to OPCD.

Morris said that the exact details of the arrangement, such as which government body will be signing the contract directly with Hexagon, are not finalized yet.  

Dr. Robert Collins, Professor of Urban Studies and Public Policy at Dillard, said that no laws had been broken at this point, but that the maintenance contract with the city will have to go through a public bid process.

“The maintenance agreement is a different matter and will need to be subject to a public bid process. I don’t see any way around that,” he said. “So provided the maintenance contract is bid publicly, no rules have been broken. While some will argue that the process is not totally transparent, no actual rules or regulations were violated. So the only issue I see here is one of transparency.”

The Software

Morris told The Lens that although there wasn’t a formal public bidding process, his office undertook an intensive informal search to replace the NOPD’s records management system, which he said was an outdated “legacy system.” He said they received proposals and engaged with four to five companies, including Motorola Solutions and Mark43. 

“We didn’t just go out and pick Hexagon off the shelf,” Morris said in an interview. “I want to be clear the agency did do a due diligence search and evaluation of multiple solutions before we arrived at this one.”

Ultimately, OPCD’s search landed on two connected pieces of software from Hexagon.

The first piece of software, called HxGN OnCall Records, is a cloud-based records system that can hold a wide range of public safety records like arrests, incident reports and 911 calls. According to an April 2020 proposal from Hexagon to OPCD, the software “links people, property, places, and related records into one central database, dramatically increasing law enforcement efficiency and effectiveness.”

The second piece of software, called HxGN OnCall Analytics, helps make sense of the massive amounts of data that modern police departments and cities collect. It’s based on Microsoft software, including Azure, a collection of 200 cloud-based services including artificial intelligence and machine learning, according to Microsoft’s website

“Public safety agencies today produce a staggering amount of data,” the April proposal says. “With data mining capabilities from OnCall Analytics, agencies can transform complex, unintelligible data into clear business reports and dashboards that are easy to understand.”

The new software will be a big upgrade for the NOPD. But it could be an even bigger step up for the other law enforcement agencies in New Orleans. 

“This records management system will be available to every law enforcement agency in Orleans Parish, not just the New Orleans Police Department,” Morris said in an interview. “So for once and finally all the other agencies that do police work or law enforcement activity, we will finally be able to share data.”

Already, five other police departments have formally asked to join into the system, according to Morris: the Housing Authority of New Orleans Police Department, Orleans Levee District Police and the campus police departments for the University of New Orleans, Dillard University and Delgado Community College.

Those five departments are already partially integrated in the NOPD’s current records system, but Morris said they only use it to log arrests, not to gain access to the NOPD’s vast records or new data analysis tools. 

Morris said the system will also help create efficiencies in the city’s partnership with the Louisiana State Police. 

“We’re also building an integration natively with the Louisiana State Police,” Morris said at an OPCD board meeting in January. “We will be linking those two systems together so we can share information seamlessly.”

‘You’re getting a lot more’

The proposed software contract came up in an OPCD board meeting earlier this month because Morris is seeking board permission to enter a financing agreement with a separate company to spread out the upfront cost of the system — $2.2 million — into $494,000 annual payments for the next five years. 

But the board ended up deferring the issue, largely because NOPD Superintendent Shaun Ferguson seemed unclear on exactly what the software was, why they needed it and how much it would cost. Ferguson also raised questions about whether the city would charge other law enforcement agencies that decided to opt into the system.

“I just don’t recall us spending that kind of money,” Ferguson said.

Morris couldn’t say exactly how much the NOPD is paying for its current system, but indicated at the board meeting that the new system would be more expensive.

“The price may be a little more than we pay now, but you’re getting a lot more,” Morris said.

Morris met with Ferguson this week to discuss his questions, OPCD spokesman Marcus Creel said in an email. 

“Tyrell has met with Superintendent Ferguson, and has answered all of his questions. We anticipate that the resolution will be passed at the next meeting.”

Morris said that he hopes to hold that meeting as soon as this week, but couldn’t confirm a date.

What can it do

Morris pitched the software as a way to replace an old and outdated system, increase cybersecurity, easily comply with new state and federal reporting requirements and cut down on the number of administrative tasks police officers have to do. He pointed to the 2019 cyberattack, which forced NOPD officers to hand write reports.

“Once you do the research on the actual program and product that’s being purchased you will be amazed how it is helping us revolutionize public safety data sharing in the 21st century,” Morris said. 

However, as some privacy advocates point out, it can be difficult to ascertain what functions, exactly, the software will provide. 

“At first look, I can barely spell HxGN’s name and have a harder time understanding exactly what they do,” Arnold said. 

The products appear to be highly customizable, and product materials pitch it more as a platform to build personalized analytic tools than a static list of available services. And the analytic tools behind all the data seem to be subject to constant change. 

“Analytics is more than a standard reporting solution – it’s a suite of public safety data visualization and analytics products,” said the April proposal from Hexagon. “It creates a single source of truth all staff can understand and use, ensuring operators can quickly explore, analyze, and share data through interactive reports and dashboards. The data warehouse also supports third-party software access and provides data integration capabilities agency-wide.”

According to Microsoft’s website, the system can also integrate outside data into its analyses. OPCD spokesman Marcus Creel told The Lens that at least for now, the city plans to only use the platform to store records that are already kept in the current NOPD records system. He said the data inputs would be “restricted to law enforcement agencies.” He said it wouldn’t include other city records like building permits and parking tickets. But it’s unclear if that data needs to be stored within the system for it to be included in analyses. 

The software also inserts data of its own into the analyses, according to Microsoft’s website, although it doesn’t say what that data is. 

“While the data provided by Hexagon solutions is thorough, it’s not all-encompassing. To that end, Hexagon simultaneously leverages third-party and Hexagon-sourced data.”

OnCall Analytics relies on Microsoft Azure Cloud Services, which includes 200 advanced tools, including facial recognition, predictive analytics, voice recognition, machine learning and cognitive and artificial intelligence. There’s no clear list of which of these services is included in OnCall Analytics. 

Even if there were, Hexagon’s services could change. In fact, Microsoft says those plans are already in the works. 

“Hexagon plans to incorporate more of Azure’s AI features directly within the HxGN OnCall Analytics Power BI content to give users a more autonomous experience and advanced analysis when interacting with reports. Look for other new public safety solutions that leverage Azure AI, [machine learning], and cognitive services capabilities to provide timely insights to public safety agencies worldwide.”

If services are added to the software by Hexagon or Microsoft, or if the city buys new services under the initial contract, the city wouldn’t necessarily have to announce that. Morris said the concern that software will grow more powerful over time could be applied to many software purchases.

Arnold, from Eye on Surveillance, said that risk is why the group has been pushing the city for over a year to pass comprehensive surveillance regulations that would force the city to record, track, measure and announce its use of any surveillance technologies. 

“I hope New Orleans will continue to pursue comprehensive surveillance reforms that make the required transparency around these kinds of decisions more explicit,” Arnold said. “In the meantime, more needs to be learned about Hexagon’s technology and how they will protect resident information.”

Last year, the group partnered with then-City Councilman Jason Williams to draft an ordinance that would have created those comprehensive surveillance regulations.The City Council ended up passing a version of that ordinance in December, but it removed most of the reporting and oversight requirements in the original draft. Instead, the ordinance created outright bans on four specific surveillance technologies, including facial recognition, predictive policing and characteristic tracking. 

Morris said the software wouldn’t conflict with the new law, and that if those capabilities were added, the city would be barred from using them under the ordinance anyway. But those restrictions only apply to city entities like the NOPD, not necessarily the other police departments that would use the system to access NOPD records. Morris said it will really come down to the individual users to decide how the software is utilized. 

“The beautiful part about it is that every agency gets to decide how they want to use the system,” Morris said in an interview. “OPCD won’t be in a place to say, here’s how you should use the system or how you configure it. Each public safety agency that will be on the platform has the ability to set their own parameters, workflows, forms and how they want the system to operate. We’re just building someplace for the data to live safely, efficiently and connect the dots. How you manage and use that data, that’s up to each department to decide for themselves.”

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...