Facial recognition technology that has been touted as an important tool to reduce violent crime in the city was used by the New Orleans Police Department only 13 times from Oct. 1, 2022, to July 1, 2023, resulting in zero arrests, according to a new report from City Council consultant AH Datalytics. The technology provided potential identities in just five cases, two of which were deemed “bad matches,” the report said. 

The report comes roughly a year after the council lifted a ban on the controversial surveillance technology following pressure from the NOPD, Mayor LaToya Cantrell and a civic group called the NOLA Coalition. 

“Last year, some argued overturning [the council’s] ban on Facial Recognition tech was ‘key’ to solving violent crime. … They were wrong,” Andrew Tuozzolo, chief of staff to Councilwoman Helena Moreno, said on Twitter earlier this month.

NOPD policy requires officers to submit a request form to utilize facial recognition through a partnership with a state surveillance hub called the Louisiana State Analytical and Fusion Exchange. According to data the NOPD provided to the City Council, the 15 requests in the nine-month period included 14 requests to identify a Black male and one for a Black woman.

One of the requests was canceled because the suspect was identified through other means. Another request in an identity fraud case was denied because it violated NOPD policy, which says that facial recognition can only be used in connection with a “crime of violence” or to find a missing person.

In the remaining 13 cases, facial recognition provided a match in only five of them. Two of those were considered “bad matches,” the report said. In another case, the NOPD arrested a different man than the one identified through facial recognition, noting that the “lead may have been bad information, match’s subject was not in the area during the homicide.” The last two cases that had a match are still open.

“There have been no arrests of an individual matched by facial recognition per data from NOPD,” the report said. 

About half of the 15 requests came from specialized NOPD offices focused on the most serious crimes, including the homicide division and the FBI-NOPD combined task force. The other half came from officers assigned to the NOPD’s 8th District, which covers the French Quarter and the Central Business District. The request in the identity fraud case came from the 4th District, which covers the West Bank. 

Eye on Surveillance, a leading local anti-surveillance coalition, was instrumental in passing the original facial recognition ban, and strongly opposed the council reversing it. Organizers told Verite that the report validated one of their central arguments in favor of the facial recognition ban — that mass crime camera systems simply aren’t very effective, and are a waste of public dollars needed to address the root causes of crime, like the lack of housing, education and jobs.

“This is a bittersweet moment because although it’s rewarding to witness the validation of what we’ve stated for years about this surveillance technology’s inefficacy, we’re disappointed that neither our coalition nor the people of New Orleans who resoundingly opposed the repeal were believed to begin with,” an emailed statement from the organization said.

Three council members at the time — Moreno, JP Morrell and Leslie Harris — opposed lifting the surveillance ban and likewise questioned whether facial recognition and crime cameras were vital to reducing crime.

“As the data continues to show, facial recognition is not one of NOPD’s main crime fighting tools,” Harris told Verite in an email. 

An NOPD spokesperson didn’t respond directly to questions about the system’s effectiveness. 

“Facial recognition is one of the many tools available to investigators to assist in trying to generate leads in investigations and to identify criminal offenders,” an NOPD spokesperson told Verite in an email. “Any leads or results that are formed through technology are thoroughly vetted to ensure the correct outcome.”

Questions of reliability, racial discrimination 

New Orleans’ vast network of crime cameras was born under former Mayor Mitch Landrieu in 2017, and has progressed rapidly under Mayor LaToya Cantrell. The city’s surveillance hub, the Real Time Crime Center, now has access to more than 1,000 live camera feeds around the clock, seven days a week. About half of those come from city-owned cameras and half from private residents and businesses who pay to give the city direct access to their cameras’ live feeds. 

Civil rights and privacy advocates voiced concerns from the jump, which only grew when it became clear that the city was bolstering the power of its camera network with powerful, military-grade software that could automatically and instantly search footage for specific people, vehicles and more. 

Some objected to the technology because of the massive amount of power it would give to the police and criminal justice apparatus. Others pointed to the facial recognition technology’s well-documented biases and inaccuracies. 

Several studies, including one by a federal agency, showed that facial recognition is far more unreliable at identifying people who aren’t white, leading to more false matches and, in some cases, false arrests.

For example, last year, the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office used facial recognition to identify and issue an arrest warrant for a suspect in a robbery of luxury purses in Metairie. But the software identified the wrong person, a man in Georgia who was falsely arrested and kept in jail for a week as a result. 

In November 2020, The Lens reported that despite years of denials, the city had in fact been utilizing facial recognition technology. That revelation, combined with the fact that it was apparently being done without the knowledge of the NOPD superintendent, convinced some council members that the NOPD shouldn’t have access to facial recognition.

In December 2020, the council approved a new law limiting the city’s surveillance capabilities and putting bans on four pieces of technology, including facial recognition and predictive policing software. 

The 2020 surveillance law was already much less restrictive than critics like Eye on Surveillance originally pitched. But council members at the time — including Moreno and current District Attorney Jason Williams — said the ordinance would set a baseline to build on, and that more restrictions would be added in the future.

But public support for surveillance restrictions began to drop among elected officials as New Orleans, like most major cities in the United States, started experiencing a spike in violent crime. Also similar to other cities, New Orleans police force shrank to its lowest numbers in decades. 

Pressure began building on the council to loosen the surveillance restrictions to help curb violent crime. The pressure came not just from the NOPD and Cantrell, but also from certain community groups — namely the NOLA Coalition, a partnership of more than a hundred local businesses and groups that claimed to form to try and reduce violent crime in the city.

One of the first things the group advocated for was lifting the city’s surveillance bans. The group declined to comment on this story through a spokesperson Matt Wolfe, vice president of communications at Greater New Orleans, Inc. 

As District Attorney, Williams was asked about lifting the ban and told the council “it could be an amazing tool” and could be a “force multiplier” for the NOPD. That’s despite the fact that Williams helped author the original ban when he was a council member.

In July 2022, the council voted 4-2 to lift the surveillance bans and loosen other surveillance restrictions. Council members Eugene Green, Freddie King, Joe Giarrusso and Oliver Thomas voted in favor. Morrell and Harris voted against. Moreno was absent for the vote but had spoken in opposition to it. Moreno, Harris and Morrell later authored an ordinance, which the council approved unanimously in August 2022, to create some limited guardrails on surveillance usage. The law requires the NOPD to share certain data with the council, including the facial recognition use included in the recent council report from AH Datalytics.

Note: This story has been updated to note a second council vote on facial recognition in August 2022.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the AH Datalytics analysis covered the period from Sept. 1, 2022 to July 1, 2023. The report covered the period from Oct. 1, 2022 to July 1, 2023. The story has been updated.

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Before joining Verite, Michael Isaac Stein spent five years as an investigative reporter at The Lens, a nonprofit New Orleans news publication, covering local government, housing and labor issues. During...