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Cameras eyeball streetsin New Orleans for crime

New Orleans has seen initial success in a sophisticated system of crime-fighting surveillance cameras, but the project has civil libertarians crying foul.
This camera is part of New Orleans' state-of-the-art, city-wide security system. Each camera can monitor an eight-block area, communicate with police and be used to provide evidence in court.Eliot Kamenitz / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The man marched down the street in daylight, armed with a paintball rifle that had been converted to shoot with lethal force. He then blasted a newly installed camera in hopes of freeing the drug-ridden neighborhood from police surveillance.

But the shooter’s image was saved on the camera’s hard drive.

“All it did was get him arrested,” chuckled New Orleans’ chief technology officer, Greg Meffert. “The camera immediately notified the police and tracked him until he was caught.”

And when they got him, they found he was wanted on a murder warrant.

The arrest was the first success story from a sophisticated new crime-fighting system of cameras that New Orleans is installing citywide.

The bulletproof cameras can monitor an eight-block area, communicate with the authorities and provide evidence in court. Police hope the system will catch crooks in the act and serve as a crime deterrent in a city long plagued by drugs and murders.

Privacy debate
Civil libertarians are calling it Big Brother in the Big Easy, expressing concern about an invasion of privacy and the potential for misuse by police.

City officials insist there are tight controls, and they are encouraged that dozens of community groups have signed up to pay $5,000 apiece to get cameras installed on their street corners.

“Maybe the ACLU doesn’t have people dealing drugs in their neighborhoods 24 hours a day,” said Lisa Martin, who has a camera in her neighborhood. “We asked for a camera, we wanted it. We don’t want to be afraid to go outside.”

A few cities, including Chicago and Los Angeles, have started similar programs. But some cities, such as Oakland, Calif., have scrapped plans to use cameras after finding they were not effective.

The first New Orleans cameras were installed in October, initially in drug-dealing hot spots. So far, about 240 of the proposed 1,000 cameras are now in operation.

'Virtual patrols' to move as needed
The cameras will be moved as needed. They have been moved for Mardi Gras to monitor parade routes, the French Quarter and other areas. Authorities also plan to use the cameras to monitor possible terrorist targets such as the Superdome.

Mounted at the height of a street light, the cameras conduct 360-degree “virtual patrols” continuously. Their high-resolution lenses can produce recognizable pictures in all light levels and can read a license plate up to 400 feet away. Police see them as one answer to the growing problem of witnesses being too intimidated to testify.

“It’s going to be the kind of thing where we can give the jury a picture of a person committing a crime and they can look at the defendant and see they are one and the same,” said Capt. Anthony Cannatella.

He recalled when a technician demonstrated the very first camera for police.

“The first thing we saw was a drug dealer standing on the corner talking to another dealer,” Cannatella said. “He had a handful of heroin bags in one had and a baby in the other.”

The American Civil Liberties Union believes there are better ways to fight crime.

“They would be much better off to use the money to hire more officers and train them to interact with the public,” said Joe Cook, Louisiana’s ACLU director.

Safeguards against abuse
The city says there are safeguards against abuse. Cameras are not monitored. Video is stored for a brief period and can be searched if a crime is reported. Only a few qualified officers have access to the video, Cannatella said, and they look at it only in response to a specific report.

So far, more than 200 organizations — including neighborhood groups, churches and businesses — have signed up to get cameras in specific places. The fee charged to organizations is necessary because the $4.5 million contract the city awarded last spring will not cover the entire cost.

“We felt it was a good idea and that we needed one,” said Paulette Riley, who headed up the effort at Holy Name of Jesus Church to pay for a camera. “It gives people some extra security coming and going from church.”