New Orleans Police New Surveillance Initiative

By: Carlton Purvis, Published on Mar 14, 2014

New Orleans is known for Mardi Gras, Bourbon Street and big band music, but it’s also known for being home to one of the most disastrous surveillance projects. The city spent $10 million on a system that sits stagnant [link no longer available] but is still costing taxpayers thousands of dollars per year. Where the city failed, citizens have tried to fill the gaps, working to increase the number of private cameras.

Now, the city is trying to leverage the increase in private cameras in a new initiative.

In this note, we share details from our discussions with the New Orleans Police Department.

SafeCam NOLA

The website for SafeCam NOLA went online March 12, 2014. The project is a joint effort between the New Orleans Police Department and New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation [link no longer available], a law enforcement advocacy group. They want owners to register private surveillance cameras so police know where they look for footage after a crime occurs.

To be a part of the project camera owners agree to three rules:

  • “Any footage containing or related to criminal activity may be collected by the New Orleans Police Department for use as evidence during any stage of a criminal proceeding.”
  • Camera owners are not to “construe that they are acting as an agent and/or employee of the City of New Orleans and/or the New Orleans Police Department through the SafeCam program.”
  • And if footage is needed for an investigation, the police department can contact an owner directly about getting it.

NOPD are not ready to release numbers on how many people have signed up, but the site had 100 unique visitors on its first day, according to the Police and Justice Foundation. 

New Orleans vs. Philadelphia

The site was modeled after Philadelphia’s SafeCam project, officials say. Both projects aim to leverage public cameras and ironically, both cities have massively expensive surveillance projects that are burning through money.

However, the main difference between the two projects is that Philadelphia is actually paying residents to install cameras.

The city set aside $400,000 and used it to pay businesses up to half the cost of installing a surveillance system that would be registered with the Philly SafeCam program. In addition to providing funding, the city also provided minimum specs the businesses had to meet to get the funding.

“We’re not there yet,” said Nathaniel Weaver, senior project manager at the New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation, but he said citizens with existing cameras are often the ones to help others pick their systems.

For now the focus is on informing residents about the site and getting cameras registered. There will be upcoming campaigns, including presentations by police at community meetings.

The police hope to build a database similar to SafeCams8 [link no longer available], an effort by the French Quarter Management District in partnership with the police department, to register all of the private cameras in the French Quarter. There are more than 1,300 cameras registered so far.

Police Don't Monitor the Status of the Cameras

Police don't have plans to collect information beyond the camera owner's contact information and the address of the camera. It is not required to report the make, model and maintenance status of the cameras or the system.

"From what we’ve seen so far, residents and businesses do a good job at keeping their equipment functional as they see it as providing a valuable service to the community," said NOPD spokesman Benjamin Hammond referring to past instances the agency has needed to pull video. "No need for fines or site inspections." 

He said SafeCam would not replace the police canvassing the area for additional cameras.

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Who Pulls the Footage

If a crime does occur and they feel a camera may have evidence, NOPD will first ask the owner of the system to export the footage rather than seizing a system or exporting it themselves.

"We’ve haven’t run into problems in the past. Residents and businesses usually don’t have trouble exporting the data themselves. If they do, we have some tech savvy detectives that can step in," Hammond said.

Limited Impact

For now it looks like the impact of SafeCam NOLA will be limited to providing police a reference for where to find cameras after a crime. There are no plans to review images in real time.

Citizen Efforts

Project NOLA, a New Orleans non-profit's effort to increase private cameras, is one of the more interesting and potentially useful attempts in the U.S. to deal with the cost and complexity of centrally managed systems.

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