One of the hundreds of surveillance cameras deployed by the city of New Orleans. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The New Orleans Fire Fighters Association and other labor advocates are raising concerns after the city government used its expansive crime camera network to contest a workers’ compensation claim and justify the termination of three city employees. 

“All City Workers should be able to serve the City without being unduly surveilled,” said a statement from the New Orleans City Workers Organizing Committee, a recently formed group of city employees that is seeking recognition as a labor union. “NOCWOC is adamant that public crime cameras should only be used for cases in which a crime has been committed or public safety has been compromised.”

It’s unclear how often the city uses surveillance footage in employment matters. The three recent terminations only came to light because the footage was mentioned in hearings when the three employees challenged their terminations before the Civil Service Commission — an independent body that oversees the employment of the majority of the roughly 4,000-person city workforce. 

But the city’s justification for using the crime cameras in these cases implies that, under the city’s current policy interpretation, the crime cameras can likely be used on a wide range of employment issues.

To critics, using the city’s Real Time Crime Center (RTCC) camera network — created under then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration in 2017 as part of a $40 million public safety plan — for internal employment disputes sounds like “surveillance creep.” That’s when a surveillance system is introduced for one reason, like deterring violent crime, only to later be used for other purposes, like monitoring a city’s workforce. 

But city officials say it’s in line with policies governing the use of the RTCC network. In a statement, a spokesman for Mayor LaToya Cantrell, Beau Tidwell, argued that the cases fell under the network’s ​​“primary purposes”: public safety and the enforcement of city and state laws. 

In one case, a Sewerage and Water Board employee — Gregg Herbert — was terminated in December 2019 for allegedly logging bogus overtime hours. 

“It was an investigation into payroll fraud, clearly a primary purpose, conducted by S&WB investigators,” Tidwell said. 

In another case, the Fire Department obtained surveillance footage while investigating a workers’ compensation claim after a firefighter — Michael Ebbs — said he was injured by a faulty bay door at a fire station in June 2020. The department denied the claim and fired the firefighter, as well as another firefighter — Robert Pitre Jr. — who had corroborated part of the story. 

Tidwell said there were two reasons this fell under the “primary purpose” category. First, the surveillance system is used to enforce laws. And, Tidwell pointed out, local law dictates that the NOFD superintendent shall “organize, administer, supervise and discipline the fire force of the City.”

Second, the investigation involved the fire station’s failure to respond to a call at the time of Ebbs alleged accident, as well as to another call five days earlier. Another primary purpose of the system is reducing public safety response times, Tidwell’s statement said. 

Herbert is appealing his termination at the Civil Service Commission. Ebbs and Pitre already did that, but their terminations were upheld. Pitre is appealing that decision in the Louisiana Fourth Circuit of Appeal. None of the three employees could be reached for comment through their attorneys. 

In theory, the potential for payroll fraud could be used to justify monitoring any city employee at any time they are supposed to be on the clock. In addition, the New Orleans City Charter lists employee discipline as a legal “duty” of all department heads. But Cantrell’s office didn’t respond to follow-up questions about how far the city can go in its use of surveillance equipment for employment matters. 

Aaron Mischler, president of the city firefighters’ union, told The Lens he had major concerns about the city’s use of the crime cameras in Pitre and Ebbs’ cases. 

“I don’t think the crime cameras should be used for anything except trying to catch someone in the act of committing a crime,” Mischler said. “That’s what they’re there for. That’s what they’re supposed to be used for, not to be Big Brother.”

‘They ambushed him’

Mischler’s issues with the Pitre and Ebbs’ cases mirror a criticism of video evidence in the criminal justice system — that they provide more power and leverage for whoever is recording and storing the footage. 

Many police officers have complained for years about the prevalence of citizen-shot videos of police encounters, arguing that they give a slanted and incomplete picture of what happened. In fact, some of the major reasons police departments adopt body-worn cameras include reducing agency liability, resolving citizen complaints and improving community perceptions, according to a 2016 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Critics of the police, in turn, have complained the body camera footage can also be biased, and that footage can be used when convenient to the police and withheld when it isn’t.

The common concern is that even video isn’t always unbiased, and that footage tends to yield more power to whoever is in control of it. 

Mischler took particular issue with the department’s treatment of Pitre, the firefighter who witnessed Ebbs’ alleged accident. 

Pitre was interviewed twice on the incident. During at least one of those interviews, Pitre was already suspected of lying, but hadn’t yet been notified he was under investigation. Mischler argues he should have had union representation with him at that point. The department also did not inform Pitre before or during those interviews that they had obtained footage of the scene from a nearby crime camera. And later, departmental officials used inconsistencies between Pitre’s statements and the footage to justify his termination. 

“They ambushed him,” Mischler said

In Pitre’s September 2020 termination letter, then-Superintendent Tim McConnell referenced eight “false statements” that justify Pitre’s termination, all of which are about details surrounding the accident, rather than whether the accident actually happened. His “false statements” include what he was wearing and how long he was at the station before the accident occurred. 

“There are other places in the transcript, however, where Pitre was certainly inaccurate and may have been lying,” the Civil Service hearing document said. “Pitre said he parked his truck in the back. In the video, it was in front. Pitre said it was about 5 minutes from when he arrived to when the door came down… but the video showed it was longer.” 

Mischler and Pitre argued that all of those “false statements” could be explained by faded memory. But the termination letter claimed these statements “were made with the intent to deceive” and “interfered with the NOFD’s investigation into the misconduct of another NOFD employee.”

Mischler maintains that Ebbs and Pitre were telling the truth and that the city got it wrong. The Lens was unable to obtain a copy of the surveillance video, but according to Mischler and details from the Civil Service records, the footage was ambiguous and did not prove a clear case against Ebbs. 

“The camera was faraway enough that one could not readily identify the persons walking in and out of the Station,” the Civil Service documents said. 

And according to Civil Service documents, the footage only shows part of the scene — the exact part that would have shown Ebbs’ foot stuck in the door, according to Mischler. 

“If the crime camera doesn’t show the whole scene, it’s not a reliable piece of evidence to put in, and it just prejudices whoever can spin it their way the best,” Mischler said. “It doesn’t show 100% of what actually happens, and it becomes prejudicial at that point.”

Finally, Mischler raised concerns over the fact that a New Orleans Police Department detective and forensic examiner “enhanced” the footage on behalf of McConnell. Mischler questioned whether that was an appropriate use of NOPD resources, and said he’d never seen the NOPD work on a Civil Service case that didn’t involve an NOPD employee. The NOPD did not respond to a request for comment.  

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...