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City Council Bans Police From Using Facial Recognition Technology

Aubri Juhasz / WWNO

The New Orleans City Council passed two key criminal justice reform measures Thursday.

One measure, which was approved on a 6-1 vote, bans the New Orleans Police Department’s use of four controversial surveillance technologies — facial recognition programs, characteristics tracking systems, StingRay cellular phone surveillance devices and predictive policing software.

The other measure is an ordinance that would, in the interest of slowing the spread of COVID-19 to inmates and staff in the local jails, require police officers to issue summonses for low-level violations instead of arresting the offenders.

“I am absolutely pleased that the summons ordinance was passed,” Sade Dumas, executive director of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC) said. “I wish it would’ve happened earlier in the pandemic, but I’m happy that the city council decided to put the needs of residents’ well being and safety before fear.”

Advocates have been pushing for the summons ordinance since April when Orleans parish experienced it’s first surge of COVID-19 cases. Council member and recently elected District Attorney Jason Williams introduced the ordinance in July during the second spike of the virus and was finally approved as the city’s COVID-19 test percent positivity rate hovers just below 5 percent.

New data collected by The Marshall Project suggests that one in six prison inmates in Louisiana has tested positive for COVID-19. Months before the ordinance was approved the Orleans Parish jail population dropped to roughly 800 people — a record low for recent decades — as judges have released inmates or set low or no bail for people arrested on low level crimes.

During the city council meeting on Thursday New Orleans Police Department Superintendent Shawn Ferguson expressed concerns over individual officers’ being barred from using their discretion.

“I just ask that the council take due consideration into removing the discretion of an officer when we are doing our due diligence and being responsible for the safety of the citizens in this city,” Ferguson said.

The approved ordinance allows for officer discretion and makes distinctions that let officers arrest alleged offenders when their identities can not be proven, when they resist arrest or for serious offenses like battery, assault, negligent injury, illegal possession of stolen items or stolen weapons.

The ordinance to ban NOPD’s use of surveillance technology was heavily debated, particularly the issue of facial recognition technology.

The technology has proven to be biased against darker-skinned people, particularly Black women.

Marvin Arnold from Eye On Surveillance, a coalition focused on getting the ordinance passed, was invited to weigh in at the end of the discussion.

“Why can’t facial recognition technology identify dark-skinned people as well as light-skinned people?” Arnold asked. He theorized that it’s because the people designing the technology are white and light-skinned. “It’s probably dark-skinned women who are least involved in these processes and that’s why we get these outcomes.”

The NOPD has said that it does not use the tool.

In July, when the ordinance was first introduced, a representative from the city’s Real Time Crime Center (RTCC), which is a part of the Department of Homeland Security and subject to different policies from the NOPD, said “the city doesn’t deploy any facial recognition technology in a law enforcement purpose.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Louisiana submitted a public records request for communications “regarding the use of facial recognition.” The city’s response was that “the Police Department does not employ facial recognition software.”

However, in November, an NOPD spokesperson admitted to the Lens that the police department does use the technology when given access by state and federal partners.

Ferguson reiterated this point in the city council meeting, adding that he did not know until recently that the NOPD was using the technology and that he notified council once he became aware.

“At one time I was pretty clear that you told us that facial recognition software was not being used in the city of New Orleans and then in fact there is access to it,” Williams said to Ferguson in the meeting.

In an interview, Eye On Surveillance’s Arnold called Ferguson’s lack of knowledge of NOPD’s use of the technology “shameful.”

Ferguson also said NOPD has not been tracking the use of the tool and does not currently have a policy regarding the use of facial recognition software.

Council member Cindy Nguyen made a motion to defer a vote on the ordinance until January 2021.

“[The] intent is to water down and kill this ordinance and defer it to death.” Arnold told the council. “If the technology is bad then we don’t want it and anything shy of adopting the ban is just … political posturing.”

Although it appeared that the council would vote on deferring the ordinance, after a brief recess council member Nguyen withdrew her motion to defer. The council ultimately voted to ban facial recognition as well as the other technologies.

Jared Brossett was the only council member to vote against the ordinance.

“We’re encouraged to see our elected leaders listening to our needs while committing to the divestment from racist and harmful policing practices. NOPD must follow suit,” a statement from Eye on Surveillance reads.

The original draft of the ordinance included automatic license plate readers in the ban. However that was removed from the final policy, as well as other provisions.

“New Orleans should be proud of itself, not only for being a regional leader, but also nationally and internationally for banning so many harmful technologies at the same time,” Arnold said.

Bobbi-Jeanne Misick is the justice, race and equity reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between NPR, WWNO in New Orleans, WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama and MPB-Mississippi Public Broadcasting in Jackson. She is also an Ida B. Wells Fellow with Type Investigations at Type Media Center.

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