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

Just two weeks after it approved the use of facial recognition technology for the New Orleans Police Department, the New Orleans City Council will consider two new measures on Thursday meant to provide greater oversight and transparency on police operations and surveillance technology. 

But a high-ranking official in Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration has expressed opposition to one of the two proposed ordinances, which would require the NOPD to submit data on everything from uses of force to its use of surveillance footage, saying the mandates would “take up considerable resources and be overly burdensome to understaffed agencies.”

Cantrell’s office did not respond to requests for comment for this story. 

The first proposed ordinance, which is being brought by Councilmembers Leslie Harris, JP Morrell, and Helena Moreno, would require police to get approval from a judge or a magistarate commissioner prior to requesting the use of facial recognition technology and submit a sworn affidavit that articulates the reason for the request and confirms that “all other reasonable alternatives to the use of facial recognition technology have been exhausted.”  Under current NOPD policy, approval from a judge is not required.

It would also require NOPD to provide monthly reports to the Council regarding how frequently facial recognition technology is being used, and whether or not use of the technology resulted in arrests, along with other information.

Finally, it would clarify that facial recognition cannot be used to investigate abortion, which is now a crime under the state’s “trigger law.” The proposal also prohibits the use of the technology to investigate any consensual sex acts between adults, including any law that purports to criminalize sexual contact between same-sex partners. That appears to be a reference to Louisiana’s sodomy law, which is stil on the books despite being unenforceable since the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated such laws nearly 20 years ago. (The court’s recent opinion overruling Roe v. Wade has raised concerns that it may revisit the 2003 ruling striking down sodomy laws.)

The proposed ordinance is nearly identical to an amendment that was proposed two weeks ago, but was voted down in a 3-3 vote. It likely would have passed had Councilwoman Moreno not been absent from the meeting due to experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. Harris and Morell both voted for the amendment, but against the overall approval of the technology. Councilman Joe Giarusso voted for both the amendment and the approval. Councilmembers Eugene Green, Freddie King, Jr. and Oliver Thomas voted against the amendment but for the approval. 

In advocating for the amendment, Morrell said that it gave the ordinance “guardrails” so that an entity other than NOPD would have some oversight related to how facial recognition is used. 

Facial recognition software, which has been shown to have inherent racial bias by more frequently misidentifying Black and brown people, was banned in the city in 2020 following revelations that NOPD had been using it for years, despite repeated denials. The department did not — and according to the Cantrell administration, still does not — have direct access to facial recognition software. Instead it was requesting facial recognition analysis from the Louisiana State Analytical and Fusion Exchange — or the Louisiana Fusion Center — a multi-agency police intelligence partnership housed at Louisiana State Police headquarters. 

The facial recognition ban was part of a broader ordinance to limit the use of surveillance technology, which also banned characteristic recognition and tracking software, predictive policing and cell-site simulators.

But NOPD Chief Shaun Ferguson has always opposed the outright ban on facial recognition technology. And amid a recent rise in violent crime in the city and throughout the rest of the country, Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration came out in favor of rolling back the surveillance ordinance and undoing the ban on facial recogntion, which ultimately led to the vote last month. 

Cantrell administration opposed to Morrell ordinance seeking police data

Council members will also consider an ordinance, sponsored by Morrell, that would require criminal justice agencies to hand over raw data on to the City Council on a monthly basis, and for NOPD to publish monthly data related to misconduct and uses of force, among other things. 

The ordinance would require the NOPD to turn over data to the council on major crimes, including statistics and clearance rates on homicides and nonfatal shootings, as well as data on the department’s use of overtime and its current staffing levels.  

It would also provide the council with data on police requests for video surveillance footage from the Fusion Center and from the city’s own Real-Time Crime Center, the surveillance hub for hundreds of publicly and privately owned surveillance cameras around New Orleans. The Real-Time Crime Center is operated by a separate city agency, the New Orleans Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. In order to retain footage for criminal investigations, police investigators (as well as other city agencies seeking footage) must submit formal requests to the office. All footage not requested is deleted after 30 days. 

Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration appears to be opposed to the data ordinance. In an email obtained by The Lens, Catrell’s Criminal Justice Commissioner Tenisha Stevens warned that handing over data to the Council could undermine public trust by creating “multiple sources of truth, with no checks and balances, which will erode public trust and make it hard to make accurate data-driven decisions.”

Stevens said that the ordinance would duplicate work already being done by the city’s Office of Criminal Justice Coordination, be burdensome to agencies that are already stretched thin on staff. Stevens was also concerned about privacy with respect to some of the sensitive data that would be provided to the council but not published publicly. The ordinance calls for “appropriate privacy protections” but does not say what measures would be taken to ensure the data is kept private.

“There are no specified protections for this data, other than vague verbiage, which is a major privacy concern as the raw data contains identifiable data,” Stevens wrote.

Morrell declined to comment on the objections. 

The council will meet at 10 a.m. on Thursday.

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...