This Week’s New Orleans City Council Meeting Had Big Wins for Criminal Justice Reform Advocates

Last month, we covered how the NOPD lied about using racially-biased facial recognition software. The not-so-shocking truth was that their continual and adamant denials of using the software were all lies and that they had been using it for years through federal partners. 

Just this week, a slew of emails were released that confirmed their widespread use of the software since at least 2018. The emails also revealed that the software was not only used to identify perpetrators of violent crimes, as the NOPD initially claimed upon being caught, but also for some nonviolent offenses. Most notably the identification of 4 demonstrators who an NOPD detective claimed were trying to “provoke” police officers.

Obviously, residents of New Orleans were more than alarmed to learn that surveillance technology has been used secretly for years in the city. Not only was this an infringement on their privacy but also was problematic because of how racially-biased facial recognition software has proven to be. 

Last year, the National Institute of Standards and Technology released a study that involved 

189 pieces of facial recognition software from 99 different developers. The study found that the vast majority of the software was racially-biased, misidentifying Black and Asian people at a factor of 10 to 100 times that of White people. 

Taking this into account, the concealed use of the software, and the ire of the New Orleans people, the New Orleans City Council passed a ban on facial recognition software this week. 

The ordinance will create outright bans on some surveillance technologies, including facial recognition. It also sets up in-depth, extensive reporting requirements so that surveillance technology can no longer be used in secret. 

Chris Kaiser, advocacy director of the ACLU of Louisiana commented, “The status quo is that the government is really free to acquire, deploy, expand existing surveillance technology outside of public view and without public input and without city oversight. Often, as a result, we really don’t know what’s out there.”

The new ordinance requires all surveillance technology to be approved by the City Council through a public meeting so that New Orleans residents are completely in the know about what kind of technologies are being used. 

While this a huge win for criminal justice reform advocates it wasn’t their only victory this week. The City Council also unanimously voted to pass ordinance 33020 which will require NOPD officers to issue a summons instead of arrests for people who are suspected of low-level offenses. 

The creation of this ordinance was largely inspired by the current pandemic, and the dangers individuals can face in regard to it when detained. The New Orleans jail has experienced a large number of COVID-19 cases in imprisoned people and staff members. 

There was one point in September where 8.8% of incarcerated people in Orleans Parish Sherrif’s Office custody had COVID-19. This new ordinance will hopefully help in preventing COVID-19 cases from reaching a level that high again. 

Between banning facial recognition software, creating a new more open process for monitoring its use, and requiring the NOPD to issue summons instead of arrests for low-level and misdemeanor offenses, the New Orleans City Council passed some important criminal justice reforms this week.

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