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New Orleans to Reform Police Use of Facial Recognition Tech

The city has banned police from using facial recognition software and several other types of surveillance technology, requiring officers to issue summonses for a wide range of minor offenses rather than make arrests.

An abstract image of facial recognition being used on a crowd.
(TNS) — The New Orleans City Council has banned police from using facial recognition software and several other types of surveillance technology, and required officers to issue municipal summonses for a wide range of minor offenses rather than make arrests.

Both measures were pushed by council member  Jason Williams  and have been top priorities for criminal justice reform and civil rights groups, which called the new restrictions significant steps forward.

The council voted 6-1 Thursday to forbid facial recognition, with council member  Jared Brossett  dissenting, and unanimously to restrict the use of arrests. In both cases, council member  Cyndi Nguyen  first urged her colleagues to delay a vote, which would have pushed the decision until after Williams leaves the council to become Orleans Parish district attorney in January. Nguyen later voted for the measures.

The ban on police use of facial recognition software has been a particularly heated topic after the ACLU of Louisiana obtained emails showing the Police Department, which long denied using technology, had made use of it through state and federal agencies. The ACLU and other groups have long fought against such technology, arguing it is far more likely to return false matches when trying to identify Black people than when presented with a picture of a White person. That has led to cases where minorities are wrongfully accused or detained for crimes with which they were not involved.

"If the error rate is higher for a certain group of people, then it's not just," Williams said. "It's not the same tool as tools that are well-founded in science, which is why I'm pushing for some controls to be put in place on the tools that are being used on citizens in the community."

Police Superintendent  Shaun Ferguson  urged the council to delay its vote, arguing that while he only recently became aware of the use of facial recognition by his officers, he did not want to restrict their access by ordinance. Instead, he proposed crafting a Police Department to address the issue.

The new law does not only bar the use of facial recognition technology. It also forbids:

— The use of devices that imitate mobile phone towers to intercept signals

— Use of software that identifies people based on other characteristics such as their walk

— Using technology that aims to predict criminal behavior.

However, it does let officers use evidence gained by outside individuals or agencies from any of those technologies as long as no one from the Police Department requested or knew that was the source of the information.

"Today's vote is a victory for all New Orleanians, who have been subjected to wasteful and ineffective mass surveillance technologies for far too long," ACLU advocacy director  Chris Kaiser  said. " New Orleans has been plagued by a history of overcriminalization and wrongful convictions, and the biased surveillance technologies this ordinance bans have threatened to keep us on that path."

The council also approved restrictions on the use of arrests, rather than a summons to appear in court, for a range of nonviolent offenses. Activists and council members have promoted such a policy to prevent unnecessarily locking people up, particularly when there is concern about the spread of the coronavirus in jails.

The ordinance bars officers from making arrests for misdemeanors except in cases:

— Involving domestic violence or illegally carrying a weapon

— Where the suspect is a habitual offender or appears to present an imminent threat

— Where it is impossible to ascertain the person's identity.

Officers may also make an arrest for other reasons if they have their supervisor's approval.

The ordinance also requires officers to use municipal offenses, rather than Louisiana state law, which typically carries harsher penalties, for a variety of crimes such as theft, simple possession of marijuana and criminal damage to property. That list was trimmed after Nguyen and Ferguson objected to including some crimes such as battery, assault and resisting an officer.

"This is a major win for reform, dollars and cents efficiency and, quite frankly, for public health," said  Simone Levine , executive director of Court Watch NOLA. "No longer will we hear of New Orleanians incarcerated inside a jail, susceptible to COVID-19 and other trauma for low-level offenses."

(c)2020 The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate.