From June 2020, protesters blocked by police as they try to cross the Crescent City Connection. (Charles Maldonado/The Lens)

The Louisiana State Police deployed surveillance drones in New Orleans during June 2020 protests over police abuse spurred by the killing of George Floyd, documents obtained by The Lens show. The revelation prompted criticism from a New Orleans surveillance watchdog group, which accused the agency of “weaponizing surveillance against residents who are peacefully protesting racial injustice.” 

The Lens obtained flight logs showing that on June 3, 2020 — the day that NOPD officers deployed tear gas on demonstrators who were attempting to cross the Crescent City Connection — the State Police used two drones in New Orleans to monitor protests. One flight began at 5 p.m. and lasted five hours, according to the logs. Another flight in the city did not have a specified start time, but lasted two hours

On the same day at a protest in Baton Rouge, LSP conducted nearly four hours of drone surveillance

The information regarding the use of State Police drones comes as the city and state grapple with how to regulate rapidly advancing surveillance technologies available to law enforcement agencies. Eye on Surveillance, a New Orleans based group that advocates for stricter regulations on surveillance technology and more transparency surrounding its use, said that the use of drones to monitor protests was a misuse of resources. 

“Louisiana law enforcement should be more focused on corporate boardrooms and political offices, where laws are broken everyday that result in deep community harm, instead of weaponizing surveillance against residents who are peacefully protesting racial injustice,” the group said in a written statement.  

The exact purpose of LSP deploying the drones is unclear. Capt. Nick Manale, a spokesperson for the State Police, said that the agency uses drones to “provide aerial observation capabilities in support of public safety, emergency response, and first responder situational assessment” — which are all authorized under the department’s drone policy —  but did not respond to provide the specific reason for deploying drones at the protests. Nor did he respond to questions about whether any local agencies requested the drone surveillance, or whether they were used to identify any individual protesters. 

A spokesperson for Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s office declined to comment on whether they were aware of the drone flights in New Orleans.

Crescent City Connection protest

The Lens was not immediately able to obtain the footage collected by the drones. Manale said that footage from State Police drones is “not generally stored” but that he would have to check with investigators about June 3 specifically. The records — if in existence —  were not made available by LSP by the time this story was published. 

The June 3rd, 2020 protest was the most contentious of the demonstrations related to the killing of George Floyd that took place in New Orleans. Protesters began crossing an elevated freeway overpass leading to the bridge and were met with a line of police officers blocking their crossing.  An extended stalemate followed, and at one point, a group of protesters broke away, moving toward the blockade, police video from that night appears to show. In response, the New Orleans Police Department fired tear gas and rubber projectiles into the crowd, creating a chaotic scene as hundreds of people attempted to flee.

The decision to utilize tear gas was roundly condemned by local lawmakers and advocacy groups, and led to a proposed class-action lawsuit filed by protesters and a City Council ordinance restricting the use of tear gas by law enforcement. 

Five arrests were made by NOPD during the incident as well. The Lens was not able to determine on Wednesday if drone footage has been used in their prosecution or in other law enforcement investigations. Police released body camera footage from that night the following week, and drone footage shot by a Tulane University Ph.D. student also captured the incident on the overpass.

Law enforcement drones used to monitor protests across the country

State law provides some restrictions on the use of drones for surveillance by members of the public, but those do not apply to state government or law enforcement. And there doesn’t appear to be anything in New Orleans city law that would prevent the use of drones for police surveillance. The City Council passed landmark legislation in 2020 that for the first time placed restrictions on what surveillance the city could use. It was a major accomplishment in that it put New Orleans on the map as one of the few municipalities to actively regulate surveillance use.

But the law fell far short of what advocates, including those with Eye on Surveillance, had been pushing for. Advocates wanted to create an ongoing regulatory regime that would force the city to get City Council approval to use new surveillance technology, and create ongoing monitoring of the city’s surveillance usage.

But those regulations were removed from the final version of the law at the request of the NOPD.

“We’ve stripped extensive approval and reporting processes as requested by the NOPD,” then-Councilman Jason Williams explained in December 2020.

The law that was ultimately passed prohibited the use of four specific types of surveillance technology, including facial recognition and predictive policing. But drones aren’t mentioned anywhere in the law. Even if they were, the law only applies to city-run agencies, not state agencies like the State Police.

In cities across the country, drone surveillance of protests in the wake of George Floyds murder — both by local law enforcement and federal agencies — sparked debates on the appropriate use of surveillance technology. 

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security utilized aerial surveillance — including drones — in 15 cities during the protests that summer, promoting a letter from Democratic members of the House Oversight Committee that DHS “undermined the First Amendment freedoms of Americans of all races who are rightfully protesting George Floyd’s killing” by going outside of its jurisdiction. 

“The deployment of drones and officers to surveil protests is a gross abuse of authority and is particularly chilling when used against Americans who are protesting law enforcement brutality,” the letter read. 

Eye on Surveillance also suggested that there may be a pattern of local authorities partnering with state agencies to avoid scrutiny when it comes to surveillance techniques. For years, the New Orleans Police Department denied that it was using facial recognition software, but it was eventually revealed that they in fact were utilizing facial recognition “through state and federal partners.”  

“Remember, it was through a partnership with LSP that New Orleans police lied about and hid their use of facial recognition technology for years,” EOS wrote. “There is no evidence surveillance makes us safer. On the other hand, this is one of many stories of local law enforcement misusing technology they claim is for our own good.”

Michael Isaac Stein contributed to this story.

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...