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New Orleans Invests $70M in Police Surveillance Cameras

Dozens of additional crime cameras will be installed in New Orleans later this year in an effort to help police catch violent offenders and illegal dumpers, the City Council decided Thursday.

(TNS) — Dozens of additional crime cameras will be installed in New Orleans later this year in an effort to help police catch violent offenders and illegal dumpers, the City Council decided Thursday.

A total of 70 cameras, purchased with revenue from fines levied on Entergy New Orleans, money borrowed via bond issues and money from an earlier crime camera fund, will be apportioned across all five council districts. New Orleans East will receive 22 new cameras, while each of the other council districts will receive 12 apiece, officials said. Specific locations were not provided.

Council members said the cameras will help combat a recent surge in violent crime.

"Right now we do not have enough police on the streets," council member Kristin Gisleson Palmer said. "And I think this is a smart way of being supportive to allow police to focus on violent crime and some of these other things, so that we don't have to utilize police manpower."

Police said they have increasingly come to rely on New Orleans' $40 million, 24/7 network of cameras since it was created in 2017 to help the Police Department solve carjackings, homicides and other violent crimes. So, too, has the Sanitation Department used video surveillance to catch dumpers of tires, waste and other materials in the act, and to find and clear cluttered areas.

But privacy advocates have raised alarms about the increasing intrusion of electronic surveillance and tracking in public places. Other critics say use of surveillance cameras can unfairly target minority communities. Former Independent Police Monitor Susan Hutson in 2017 cited the potential for abuse of the program and said City Hall's original plan for the cameras did not set aside any additional money or staff to monitor it.

At present, the Real-Time Crime Center taps into more than 340 public and private cameras. Camera locations are chosen based on crime data, input from police commanders and the locations of critical city infrastructure.

When calls to 911 are made, public-facing cameras in that area automatically spin up a view, allowing staff at the crime center to see exactly what is happening and relay that information to police.

In hotspots for illegal dumping, the cameras are regularly checked and recordings is sent to sanitation officials.

City officials say the system, housed with the Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness office, does not use facial recognition software. But last year, The Lens reported that Police Department officials confirmed they had tapped state and federal partners with access to that technology and could use it.

Still, given the cameras' ability to help police quickly resolve crimes, police and public officials have sought to install more of the devices in troublesome areas, said Ross Bourgeois, director of public safety support services in the homeland security office.

So, too, have some residents demanded more cameras in their communities as crime has risen.

New Orleans East resident Sharon Varnado, whose son, Shawn Brock, was killed at a gasoline station on Crowder Boulevard at Interstate 10 in January, said more surveillance would be helpful at gasoline stations and other locations where crimes have been prevalent.

"It's fearful, especially for women," Varnado said. "A lot of women are saying they want to get home before dark. At least the cameras would help the police."

The council's move Thursday will pull $500,000 from about $5 million in fine revenue it received from Entergy in 2019 for the utility's paid-actors scandal. That amount will be added to $250,000 that was pulled from the Entergy fund in 2020 for crime camera installations. An additional $250,000 will come from bond revenue.

Crews will begin installing the devices in August. Palmer said Thursday that part of the funding for the new cameras will go toward administrative costs.

The East is receiving an outsized share of the cameras because the natural gas-fired power plant for which Entergy was fined was built in the East, Palmer said. The utility has denied culpability in the incident, but a council investigation blamed Entergy after one of its subcontractors hired actors to pose as supporters for that controversial project.

The area is also the city's largest police district, and police struggle to adequately cover it, said council member Cyndi Nguyen. Carjackings and other crimes have also risen in that area in recent months.

John Alfred, another New Orleans East resident, called the cameras "a major step in the overall solution" needed for crime prevention.

"Now, the criminals know somebody's watching," he said.

© 2021 The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.