Greedy politicians and business owners can’t resist investing in the Crescent City’s tourist economy, making depraved capitalist decisions on spending and legislation that benefit businesses over New Orleanians. City officials and business owners’ romance with investment in tourism has resulted in the creation of the largest police remote monitoring camera surveillance systems in the nation for a city of this size.
Residents of New Orleans have criticized the cameras for destroying the freewheeling rakish character of the city and expressed concern that “revelers will lose their taste for revelry.” Government oversight groups disparage surveillance technologies like the New Orleans police camera program for their disparate racial impacts, which further criminalize black populations, and for threatening privacy rights. While vital infrastructure remains in disrepair and the state maintains the second-highest incarceration rate in the nation, the City of New Orleans plans to invest in new technologies to automate policing and increase tourist revenue.
Seventy years ago, George Orwell’s depiction of a dystopian mass government surveillance program conducted by the omnipresent Big Brother introduced the concept of police video monitoring into the public imaginary. In the Eighties, CCTV cameras became commonplace for theft-prone businesses to use as further loss-prevention measures. After decades of familiarizing and disciplining populations through surveillance, those in technologically advanced nations no longer perceive mass surveillance as an operation of Orwellian dystopias. Great advancements in phone and computer technology, with built-in access for governments to wiretap and read emails, have made mass surveillance an acceptable government and market practice in the citizen-consumer imaginary.
The widespread acceptance of mass surveillance as part of normal government operations cannot be solely credited to advancements in technology but to a significant cultural shift in the public’s view on government infringement on privacy. As a functional tool to expedite tasks and to link people to each other across great distances, technology carries with it potentials for new realities. Political philosopher Gilles Deleuze warned that technology provides “freedom” and at the same time “entangles the subject within society.” He goes on to describe how new tools function as potentials for control: “you do not confine people with a highway, but by making highways you multiply the means of control.”
Since the introduction of cheaply available smartphones and cameras to consumers, community policing projects were born to mirror normalized police surveillance. ProjectNOLA, Nextdoor, the French Quarter Task Force, and SafeCam NOLA function as community policing projects in New Orleans. In 2010, Project NOLA conceived a beastly vigilante neighborhood watch program, installing 1500 networked remotely monitored cameras throughout the city over the last nine years. ProjectNOLA claims to improve communities by providing a platform for neighbors to spy on and police each other. In the name of increasing protection, these projects create fear, division, and demonization, not a safer-feeling community.
Wikileaker Julian Assange warned against the negative impacts of heavy-handed surveillance projects like Project NOLA, describing the side effect as “complete disenchantment with truth and communication,” which replicates the situation in East Germany where 10% of the population was snitches. The American Civil Liberties Union also warns that citywide camera surveillance exacerbates both racial discrimination and already existing distrust of law enforcement.
These community policing projects allow residents to coordinate and police one another, 24 hours a day. In establishing a platform for organized community snitching and collaboration with police at the expense of open communication between neighbors, neighborhood watch programs silence a discussion about what autonomous communities and public safety could actually look like. These neighborhood watch programs do not allow for vital discussions about community life but rather act as an unmonitored snitching forum for aloof, wealthy insular groups of people to further their own political and social control over New Orleans communities.
In 2017 the New Orleans City government installed over 340 cameras on city streets to create an expansive remote police surveillance system with a particular focus on residential neighborhoods, at a cost of nearly $8.5 million and a yearly operating cost of $3.8 million. Additionally, NOPD’s Real-Time Crime Center (RCCP) staffs 18 officers and accesses 6,000 cameras, which include the 340 new Orleans police cameras and private cameras provided by SafeCam NOLA and SafeCam Platinum programs.
SafeCam Nola acts as the New Orleans Police Department’s equivalent to Project NOLA, networking residents and private business cameras to the RCCP’s city-wide surveillance network. The police require the camera-owning “citizen… to cooperate with any police requests for access to footage.” Similar to Project Nola, SafeCam offers free and subsidized cameras, to those who qualify, with installation at $350 and an $18-a-month operating fee.
Who in New Orleans will actually benefit from millions of dollars spent on omnipresent police eyes? Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards believes that businesses will: “We’re sending a message to the millions of people who visit New Orleans every single year,” that “New Orleans is open for business.” Studies on the San Francisco and Los Angeles camera surveillance program failed to prove the efficacy of cameras at reducing violent crimes, instead citing that surveillance programs “often had little effect on violent crime.”
In the fall of 2018, the New Orleans City Council discussed bringing Smart City Technologies in New Orleans. City council president Jason Williams stated, “[it] will put a rainbow over New Orleans for the next few decades.” While The Real-Time Crime Center may now only be used for video-monitoring, in the future the city plans to use it as a command center for other automated city services. The RTCC might function as a centralized coordinator for many city services like flood management, EMS and the fire department. New Orleans already uses software like GIS, a combined data and mapping software that could be used to integrate government services. GIS allows users to create informational maps by integrating satellite images and statistics. In 2017, The Trust For Public Land did this with thermal imaging to create a map of urban heat pockets in New Orleans. This project creates city-wide maps of infrastructure using data analytics gathered from an ecosystem of connected technologies. This data is then used to locate the geographical areas in need of environmental protection and restoration. Also New Orleans probably already uses a police camera management software many other cities use, called the SCADA (Software Control Administrative Data Analytics) in order to run data analytics and operate remotely.
New Orleans is not alone in creating an omnipresent police eye over the city. This is an evolving global trend of automating city infrastructure: Hangzhou, China now uses a software called the City Brain to command and centralize multiple city services; London has a citywide CCTV surveillance program; Singapore uses facial recognition enabled police cameras on almost every city block, and Dubai plans to have an automated police force by 2030. Technologists and politicians hail this global trend towards automation of public and private services and infrastructure as the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Automation includes public and private use of technology, and in New Orleans automation is already very present: license plate scanners on a number of streets, traffic lights and traffic monitoring and ticketing cameras, mobile parking applications, mobile bus tickets application, rideshare bicycles, and firework and gunshot detectors. Not to mention, the police have access to listening devices, wiretapping, drones, and more unknown second-hand military technology. Private corporations contribute even more to “smart city” technology by hosting local economies and communications on their platforms.
The new network of police cameras and urban technologies provides police with a powerful tool for surveillance and information on the population’s spending, movement, and activities, while private tech companies like Uber, Lyft, AirBnB to NextDoor and ProjectNOLA provide the police with access to user information and activities. This data can be used in the future to inform further automation of city services and political decision-making, but automation of government services ultimately gives only the most elite technocrats access to a highly profitable economy and access to city data about crucial government infrastructure and activities of a population.
CCTV is a major form of surveillance currently being linked with biometric facial recognition software. The use of biometric technologies has a long legacy in this country dating back to the criminalization of black people through facial or “physiognomic” mapping that linked certain phenotypes to character traits made up by white doctors and scientists in the nineteenth century.
Now, 43% of American’s faces are in facial recognition databases, used by police, hospitals, and private retailers. Facial recognition uses biometrics to identify and discriminate people as suspects based on pre-programmed, culturally specific descriptors. Different biometrics can only work in specific cultural settings, and even then raise serious questions about the potential for discrimination. Biometrics is not so much a technology as it is a culturally constructed mechanism used for state power. Essentially, it functions as an enabler for dragnet policing by using specific characteristics to identify suspects in a larger pool. Dragnet policing, named after a type of fishing where the fisher uses a giant net to catch a school of fish, is a coordinated system of measures to investigate a defined territory and set group of people. Racially coded police techniques like stop-and-frisk and politically repressive warrantless wiretapping that listens for certain words associated with criminality or terrorism function as police dragnets. Dragnets are first and foremost discriminatory police practices that violate the Fourth Amendment, which is supposed to limit the police’s power of unreasonable search and seizure.
The NOPD’s omnipresent watchmen seem to function as the notorious and questionable dragnet policing. According to Stop Watching NOLA, a community organization of New Orleanians who monitor and protest police cameras, the surveillance system discriminatorily targets lower-income black and brown people by concentrating cameras in these neighborhoods. Police funding of cameras in lower-income areas reveals an intention to use the cameras as a tool for economic development for investors, disproportionately targeting poor people in black and brown neighborhoods as a means of displacement. Recently NOPD announced a plan to “ensure surveillance cameras reach lower-income and high-crime areas” and “offer cameras, including free installation, through private donations and grants.” Furthermore, the cameras decked with red and blue flashing lights function not only as a jarring public nuisance but also to alter social behavior. New Orleans Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness Director Aaron Miller stated the ugly blue and red lights are “an intentional decision, aimed both at assuaging the concerns of neighborhood residents and deterring crime [by letting] people know there are public safety resources in the neighborhood.”
Criticism of the cameras has come in many forms other than just public complaints and local media exposes. New Orleans police cameras have faced crushing criticism by tire fires, rocks, hammers, and spray paint. If you search New Orleans police cameras or traffic cameras you will find Youtube videos of tire fires and local news articles about a hero wrapped in a blanket breaking the cameras. Local and state government officials may never listen to criticism regarding the cameras, but community pushback may effectively render the surveillance program useless to law enforcement. Oppressive surveillance in New Orleans cannot be fought through education and better encryption technology alone. New technologies must be challenged as mechanisms for policing people of color and political movements. Alliances between neighbors must be built on real shared experiences of oppression, not just abstract slogans. Instead of acting as the eyes of the state, let’s take down the cameras that instill fear and alienation in our neighborhoods and replace them with real conversations, mutual aid between neighbors, and a refusal to cooperate with the forces of policing that displace native New Orleanians in favor of zones of safety for tourists.
Illustration by Josh Jack