New Orleans OKs some police use of facial recognition

July 22, 2022 GMT

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The New Orleans City Council has reversed itself and approved police use of facial recognition software and cellphone surveillance towers to investigate violent crimes.

The ordinance, approved by the council on a 4-to-2 vote Thursday, comes as killings in the city reach numbers last seen in the mid-2000s after Hurricane Katrina. It partly reverses an ordinance passed nearly two years ago, when crime was low.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell called it “a tremendous stride towards greater public safety.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana said facial recognition software has been shown to be biased by race and sex, and “there is absolutely no evidence that reinstating facial recognition will help reduce violence.”

The ordinance lists 39 specific crimes that can be investigated by using the technologies, including murder, rape, stalking, and battery of a police officer.

Two other kinds of policing software remain forbidden: programs that seek to predict spots where crime is likely and those which use characteristics such as size, clothing or vehicle model to track people.

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The 145 slayings in the first half of this year put New Orleans on pace for the highest count since the late 1990s, The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate reported.

Council members J.P. Morrell and Lesli Harris said the ordinance won’t improve public safety and will divert focus from other urgent problems in the police department.

The New Orleans Police Department has a network of more than 500 cameras around the city, WDSU-TV reported.

Council member Eugene Green, who proposed the ordinance, said new police policies, including procedures for ensuring accuracy, were adequate safeguards.

“I would not do anything that would imperil myself, my two Black sons, or anyone in this city. That is why these safeguards are in place,” he said.

John Thomas, director of public safety and homeland security for the city, said, “The facial recognition in and of itself cannot get you any arrest warrants, no search warrants. It is just a tool for us to say, ‘OK, this is a lead,’” WDSU-TV reported.

Morrell and Harris said they could not vote for the ordinance without changes to ensure that it couldn’t be used against same-sex couples and people seeking abortions, news agencies reported. Their proposed amendment also would have required a judge to sign off on use of the technology and regular reporting on its efficacy.

Changes can be made later, Green said.