Although the practice was long shrouded in secrecy, the New Orleans Police Department has used a partnership with the Louisiana State Police to run face recognition searches since at least 2018, newly released records show.
The records obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana detail the formal process used by NOPD detectives to request facial recognition searches from the State Police Fusion Center. The civil rights non-profit made the documents public Monday.
The records also show several examples of police requesting help identifying people, from a simple robbery to a gun theft.
Police don’t own the technology but get it from partners; ‘distinction without a difference,’ critic says
The documents underscore the need for the city to impose a ban on facial recognition technology in policing, the ACLU of Louisiana said. Several U.S. cities have done so this year.
“Facial recognition technology is a dangerous and racially biased tool that invades people’s privacy and is ineffective at combating crime,” said Alanah Odoms, executive director of the civil rights group. “These disturbing revelations underscore the need for the New Orleans City Council to end these abuses and pass sensible reforms that will ban the use of facial recognition technology and allow for more effective approaches to reducing crime.”
Before last month, the NOPD had never made public its use of facial recognition software and repeatedly stated that it doesn’t own such software. A city official said this summer that the city doesn’t use facial recognition.
However, in November the Lens reported that the NOPD instead went through partnerships with state and federal agencies to run those searches. City Council members like Jason Williams and Jay Banks told the outlet that they had never been informed.
The city had also told the ACLU in response to a public records request that it does not “employ” facial recognition software — although a spokesman later claimed that “employ” meant own the software directly.
On Monday, an NOPD spokesman said Superintendent Shaun Ferguson had “never denied” using facial recognition “in certain violent cases.”
However, the spokesman, Kenneth Jones, didn’t answer a question about how long the department has used facial recognition software. He said the department has “strict guidelines” around the use of the technology, although he didn’t answer a question about whether those guidelines are written.
“Currently, the NOPD is in the process of updating the use of a number investigatory tools and techniques. As for the use of Facial Recognition Technology, we have been working with Councilman Jason Williams’ office to develop the most appropriate use of this tool,” Jones said.
The records obtained by the ACLU show that the State Police warn local partners that facial recognition matches are intended to be used as “an investigative lead only and not to be considered a positive identification of any subject.”
New Orleans City Council will consider a ban on facial recognition technology on August 6.
But the ACLU and other groups question whether cops presented with a positive match from a database will leap to conclusions about a person’s guilt, despite research that shows facial recognition algorithms are 10 to 100 times more likely to misidentify a Black person versus a White person.
Detroit police in January wrongfully accused a Black man of shoplifting as a result of a facial recognition match and nothing else — despite being presented with a similar warning that the match should be treated as an “investigative” lead only, the New York Times reported.
Williams, who was elected the city’s next district attorney on Dec. 5, has proposed an ordinance limiting the NOPD’s use of surveillance technology, including facial recognition. A spokesman didn’t immediately comment Monday on whether the legislation will receive a vote before Williams takes office as DA on Jan. 11.