A Louisiana State Police vehicle in the French Quarter in January 2020. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

The ACLU of Louisiana sued the Louisiana State Police over its refusal to release documents related to facial recognition technology the agency utilizes through the Louisiana State Analytical and Fusion Exchange, also called the State Fusion Center. The group filed the suit on Tuesday in 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge. 

“Police must be accountable to the communities impacted by their harmful practices,” ACLU of Louisiana Executive Director Alanah Odoms said in a Tuesday press release. “Our community members have a right to an informed debate before any mass surveillance capable technologies are acquired or utilized. The ACLU of Louisiana demands transparency from Louisiana State Police, beginning with the release of these documents. And our work won’t stop there.”

The suit claims that the State Police violated the state public records law by denying requests for records on its use of facial recognition technology, saying it did not have the documents. But the ACLU suit argues that communications between New Orleans Police Department investigators and Fusion Center employees — released late last year by the city of New Orleans — disprove that.

A spokesperson for the Louisiana State Police declined to comment on Tuesday, saying the agency does not comment on ongoing litigation.

In November, The Lens reported that despite years of assurances from the city that it wasn’t using facial recognition, detectives were in fact utilizing the technology by making requests to the Fusion Center. A week before that report, the ACLU submitted a public records request to the city asking for documents and communications “regarding the use of facial recognition.” 

The city responded a week later saying “The Police Department does not employ facial recognition software.” No documents were handed over and the request was closed.

After The Lens report was published, the city responded to the ACLU’s request with 50 pages of emails, largely from detectives to the Fusion Center requesting facial recognition services. The city, however, admitted the response was far from comprehensive. It said that the ACLU’s request was “unreasonably burdensome and expensive.”

According to Monday’s lawsuit, the ACLU of Louisiana submitted two public records requests to the Louisiana State Police in September 2019 for a list of documents related to the Fusion Center’s facial recognition practices. The LSP denied both requests on the grounds that they didn’t have the records, and that any such records would be protected from public disclosure by an exemption to the state the public records law for “records containing security procedures, investigative training information or aids, investigative techniques, investigative technical equipment or instructions on the use thereof.”

The first ACLU request was for “all documents referencing facial recognition software currently being used by” LSP, including meeting agendas and minutes, analyses and communications between the Fusion Center and elected officials. According to the suit, LSP responded that it didn’t maintain any of those records.

The second request was for documents related to training provided by Idemia, the company that created the Fusion Center’s facial recognition software, according to the suit. LSP said these records were exempt from the public records law.

The ACLU argued in the suit that LSP’s first justification — that they didn’t maintain the requested records — was simply false. The ACLU included attachments of the NOPD communications that they said were “ipso facto” proof that at least some of the records were maintained by LSP. 

“Given the length of time and scope of the Fusion Center’s operations, it necessarily follows that it maintains ‘meeting agendas, meeting minutes, public notice, [and] communications between [its] offices[s] and elected leaders.” 

The ACLU lawsuit also argues that LSP is improperly applying an exemption to the public records law regarding investigative equipment, procedures and training. 

“Although portions of the exception may apply to a portion of those records, a blanket claim of a broad exemption was neither justified nor appropriate,” the suit says. “LSP’s reliance on a blanket, inapplicable ‘exemption,’ coupled with its false claim that it maintains to responsive documents, shows a deliberate attempt to shirk the agency’s obligation under the [Public Records Law] and cloak the Fusion Center’s operations in secrecy, in defiance of the public’s constitutional right of access to public information.”

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...