With Little Public Cooperation, Louisiana Police Turn to Tech

Police in Plaquemine are pushing for a range of surveillance technologies they hope will help investigate crime in a community reluctant to talk to the authorities. Opponents say the move would only breed more distrust.

by Emma Kennedy, The Advocate / May 17, 2019

(TNS) — Plaquemine-area law enforcement is eyeing a huge swath of surveillance technology — roughly $400,000 worth of neighborhood cameras, ShotSpotter devices and license plate readers — to help combat a community unwilling to help in investigations. But, experts warn that additional surveillance on an already-reluctant population could breed more distrust than benefit.

There has not been an increase in the number of shooting calls to prompt the funding request, but there has been a growing lack of witnesses or residents calling police in the first place, both Police Chief Kenny Payne and Iberville Parish Sheriff Brett Stassi told the Plaquemine Board of Selectmen.

“It would allow us to basically have a better witness than a witness,” Payne said after the meeting. “It’s true sight as opposed to someone saying what they think they saw or putting in their opinions. The biggest issue we have is we don’t get a lot of input regarding (investigations) from the public.”

Stassi, too, touted how beneficial the technology would be, saying it’s “almost as good as having a deputy watching.”

Neither law enforcement leader nor the two representatives from technology companies present at Tuesday's meeting discussed exactly how the different technology types would be distributed, where, and if there would be any community input before doing so.

American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana attorney Bruce Hamilton said in an interview Thursday that because surveillance, in general, sparks an inherent distrust, it’s imperative the city be open with residents about how and why it’ll use the technology.

“It sounds like there’s been a breakdown in community trust between the residents and police, and if that’s the case I would think implementing this kind of surveillance technology would be a very negative step,” Hamilton said. “Rather than the city leaders deciding what’s best for the community, it’s more productive for the community to have a dialogue and say do you want these? And how do you want these implemented?”

The camera request comes after a 14-year-old was killed last month when an unknown gunman shot at his home, striking him in the neck with a bullet. Payne said the surveillance discussions started when Selectman Oscar Mellion approached him about the idea prior to the boy’s death, but that incident brought home the point.

Payne said initially the 911 call sent sheriff’s deputies to a home a mile away because a resident who lived in that area thought the gunshots were nearby.

The wasted time to get from that location to where the shooting happened was time that could have netted quicker medical care for the teenager, undisturbed evidence and eyewitnesses who may have since fled when the shooting happened, Payne said.

Ron Teachman, a ShotSpotter representative who gave a 45-minute presentation to the board on the gunshot-identifying audio technology, touted its efficiency in differentiating noises like car backfires to real gunshots, in getting officers to a scene, data-tracking and recording that can go on to help in court cases or officer-involved shooting investigations, for example.

But, that kind of capability comes with a hefty price tag. Teachman estimated it would cost the city $385,000 for the first year to cover 5 square miles of Plaquemine and a little into the Iberville Parish jurisdiction. That covers installation, training and technology, but an ongoing subscription fee would be due annually.

Teachman said Shotspotter has grant writers on staff to help municipalities with the costs, but there’s no guarantee those grants would be approved.

The American Telephone Service cameras, more like traditional home security cameras, would cost $2,765 per camera, excluding the cost of installation, internet access and electricity. The cost of license plate readers was not discussed at Tuesday’s meeting, but those would be additional.

Payne said he doesn’t see an issue with privacy because the cameras would not face into residents’ homes or yards, and the Shotspotter devices detect audio. He said the neighborhood cameras would not record constantly but would instead be motion sensor.

“It’s just more efficient, it’s real time where we can locate valuable evidence before it’s disturbed,” he said. “A car driving down a street can get a shell casing caught in a tire and move it 100 feet before we get there.”

Chris Burbank, vice president of strategic partnerships for the Center for Policing Equity and a retired Salt Lake City police chief, said in an interview Thursday that leaders need to determine whether the benefit of solving the crimes would outweigh the impact of such technology on the community.

“Historically those types of things, whether red light cameras, facial recognition, they tend to inject a lot of bias and community mistrust and be low in efficacy,” Burbank said. "What you have to weigh is, is that 1 percent (of cases solved) actually worth the pain it causes to the community, and that is a question that almost has to be weighed community by community.”

He likened it to equipping teachers in schools with firearms to curb school shootings or taking off shoes in an airport, arguing that while it may help in a handful of examples, there are many more cases of misuse.

Instead, Burbank said, the funding would be better spent on programs, resources and community spaces for residents to gather and interact with police in a positive environment that fosters a better relationship. He recommended that beefing up funding for aspects like jobs and health care makes a community feel empowered and in doing that helps diminish crime rates.

The board didn't take any action on camera funding at Tuesday's meeting, but said they would consider the presentations closer to budget presentations.

©2019 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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