Civilian Camera Network to Expand in New Orleans

ProjectNOLA is working to put surveillance cameras on more than 100 places of worship around the city to bolster the cameras network used by police.

by Ramon Antonio Vargas, The Advocate / December 11, 2017
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(TNS) — City officials aren't the only ones working to beef up their network of crime cameras on the streets of New Orleans.

ProjectNOLA, an independent, nonprofit crime camera network, has been seeking — and has begun to find — financial support for a plan that would place such cameras on more than 100 places of worship throughout crime-plagued neighborhoods such as the 7th Ward, Gert Town and Central City.

Additionally, leaders of the initiative expect some worshipers will want crime cameras on their residences, which could give the ProjectNOLA network the potential to expand from 2,200 cameras to roughly 2,900.

Relations between ProjectNOLA and City Hall have often been strained, but project founder Bryan Lagarde and city officials seem to be moving toward a closer working relationship.

Joe Givens, a veteran civic activist helping to lead the project, said the crime cameras are an up-to-date substitute for neighborhood watch groups that were active when New Orleans saw a drop in killings in the 1990s but have since tailed off.

"With technology, we can do what we did in the '90s more efficiently," Givens said. "And cameras aren't afraid to testify in court."

The so-called Partnership for Peace & Public Safety, which involves the Givens-led Isaiah Institute, a faith-based nonprofit, as well as Lagarde's initiative, also hopes to support programs that connect at-risk youth with recreational opportunities and ex-convicts with employment.

It also wants to organize churches, mosques and other communities of faith to become more involved in attacking quality-of-life issues, such as blighted properties, on their own rather than depending on the government to do it, Lagarde and Givens said.

But a key component of the partnership's $1 million first phase is a plan to expand the nearly nine-year-old ProjectNOLA camera network, which is separate from a citywide network being developed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration.

After a couple of meetings with potential business community benefactors, Lagarde and Givens said they hope also to secure the funds that would allow ProjectNOLA to hire staff to monitor its various feeds 24 hours a day at its hub on the University of New Orleans campus.

For now, on a roughly $200,000 annual budget including monthly maintenance fees and donations from homeowners and businesses outfitted with ProjectNOLA cameras, Lagarde said he and "one volunteer with a law enforcement background" monitor the feeds, calling in any relevant information they observe to police dispatchers.

Lagarde said that during "extended business hours" someone is always stationed at the group's office, which features a dimly lit control center dominated by a dozen computer and television screens displaying the network's feeds.

But the rest of the time the group monitors the feeds on an on-call basis, depending on what may be happening on the streets, which they keep tabs on with the help of police radio scanners.

As it is, ProjectNOLA's system has proved to be valuable to the New Orleans Police Department, which also uses a separate crime camera network that pipes into the city's newly unveiled Real Time Crime Monitoring Center, staffed 24 hours a day, on the edge of the French Quarter.

By Lagarde's reckoning, there have been roughly 30 homicide investigations this year in which ProjectNOLA provided useful surveillance footage to detectives. Often that has produced solid results in the form of arrests or warrants, he said.

As long as they've been around, surveillance camera networks around the country have faced questions about whether they are effective at reducing crime and whether they infringe on citizens' right to privacy.

But Lagarde counters that helping police solve homicides and other violent crimes is important, and that ProjectNOLA would not have grown to its present size if it used participants' feeds in an intrusive manner.

"Over the years we've been doing this, we've earned people's trust," he said.

While Superintendent Michael Harrison and other NOPD brass at times have been complimentary toward ProjectNOLA's help, at other times Lagarde's relationship with the city has frosted over.

One example occurred after a ProjectNOLA crime camera's footage helped identify several men charged with the retaliatory killing of a 21-year-old woman inside her Gert Town home this summer. To Lagarde's irritation, the commander of the police district covering that neighborhood told a news conference that the case illustrated the power of the city's SafeCam NOLA program — which is unrelated to ProjectNOLA.

SafeCam is a city effort to map all privately owned cameras, but so far the program does not provide real-time feeds to the Police Department or any other entity. Officials said recently they are expanding the program to allow the private camera owners to pipe their feeds into the city's real-time observation center on North Rampart Street.

Additionally, Lagarde last year was the subject of a WWL-TV investigation that questioned whether ProjectNOLA was run purely as a public service, given that program participants bought cameras from a for-profit business run by Lagarde under the name CCTV Wholesalers.

Lagarde pointed out that ProjectNOLA participants were not required to get their cameras from CCTV Wholesalers to form part of the network. The former policeman with a criminology degree also said he had decided to close his company down in 2015, and finalized that decision the following year, to give his undivided attention to ProjectNOLA.

"I closed the business I had for 19 years, the one I wanted to hand down to my children, because this — ProjectNOLA, the peace initiative — is my life," Lagarde said.

Over the past several months, Lagarde and Givens' initiative has received support from several notable New Orleanians. Former U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite, National Urban League President and ex-Mayor Marc Morial, Archbishop Gregory Aymond, Police and Justice Foundation founder John Casbon and Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman have all spoken at meetings in support of the plan.

Meanwhile, despite their past distance, Lagarde and Landrieu's administration seem to be taking steps to develop a closer working relationship.

The two sides recently met to discuss how to make it easier for ProjectNOLA to get footage from its network to the Police Department when appropriate. They said they would keep in touch, comparing notes on projects each side is pursuing and identifying possible collaborations.

Landrieu's homeland security director, Aaron Miller, said the dialogue recognized that "many members in the community" are comfortable with the role ProjectNOLA has established for itself in the city.

"We want to maintain our promise that public safety is our priority ... and we want to make sure we are taking every opportunity to expand our Police Department's toolkit," Miller said.

©2017 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.