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Black Mirror Comes to the Crescent City: On Surveillance and Crime

Posted on Nov 19, 2018 in Criminal Defense, NOPD


Modern day Bonnie and Clyde? Not quite. A couple was arrested in New Orleans earlier this month after taking selfies on a stolen phone, according to NOLA.com.

The couple allegedly assaulted a 61-year-old woman just before 2 A.M. on October 1st. They physically attacked her and stole her purse. The incident took place downtown on Tchoupitoulas Street.

The woman reported the crime to the NOPD. Unfortunately, many stolen property cases in New Orleans go unsolved. This crime looked to be just another statistic, until a string of selfies appeared on the victim’s iCloud.

Seems that somewhere in the midst of the getaway our would-be Bonnie and Clyde stopped to snap a few pictures. Hey, sometimes you’re just looking #fresh right? Unfortunately, they didn’t check the sharing settings on their stolen goods.

NOPD was able to identify the suspects by their selfies. The couple has since been arrested.

I don’t know about you, but kinda feels like the new season of Black Mirror is running out of ideas…

Technology and Crime

As technology continues to advance, law enforcement agencies across the country are incorporating the use of digital systems and social media in their operation.

One of the things Black Mirror fans love about the show is its sociocultural prescience. It’s scary to us because it’s becoming harder and harder to differentiate the fiction from our own reality.

Drive down almost any street in New Orleans, look up, and what do you see? A camera lens staring back at you beneath flashing red and blue lights.

The multimillion-dollar surveillance system was installed all around the city under Mayor Mitch Landrieu. No one seems to know quite how many cameras there actually are, but suffice it to say this is a level of surveillance with very little precedence in a city the size of New Orleans.

Ostensibly, the surveillance network was the follow-through on Landrieu’s campaign promise to mitigate crime in the city. But does it work?

In New Orleans, the system is still too new to offer up much concrete data one way or the other. However, studies conducted between 2008 and 2011 in other heavily surveilled US cities sought to answer the question of whether surveillance successfully reduces crime.

Short answer: it doesn’t.

According to the ACLU , studies on the effect of surveillance in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington showed that there were no notable improvements on crime attributable to the surveillance. “Only Baltimore cameras reportedly had a positive impact on the levels of crime, though the writers of that report also noted that the significant costs associated with the cameras were a deterrent to their continued use.”

Extensive video surveillance is still a relatively new phenomenon in the realm of law enforcement.  The majority of what we do know about its impact is dissuading to say the least. Nevertheless, the world is trending towards more and more surveillance in all aspects of life. In the coming decades, we’ll have no shortage of data to examine the impact mass surveillance has on everything from crime and policing to psychology and culture.

Who Watches the Watchmen?

Aside from the suspect effectiveness and astronomic costs of video surveillance policing, there’s also the ethical component to consider.

The NOPD are solely responsible for collecting, utilizing, and storing the footage from the cameras. However, the department has been very taciturn as to what that entails in practice—how and when the footage is consulted, how long it is stored for, etc.

Opponents of the surveillance program have expressed concerns that it will compound existing issues of racial profiling and abuse by the police department.

The NOPD has a long and documented track record of questionable policies and racial profiling. In 2011, an investigation by the Department of Justice found that the NOPD had violated constitutional rights.

Since then, the police department has been under federal supervision, and has made strides toward rectifying some of the policy and behavior issues. However, this is a long and arduous road.

Mass surveillance breeds distrust and division, inherently. On one side, there’s an expectation of complete transparency. Landrieu himself said it, at the unveiling of the program: “If you’re in public, you don’t have that expectation of privacy…people should conduct themselves accordingly.”

Surveillance seeks to normalize the erasure of privacy, but only on one side of the camera lens. If Landrieu’s logic is to be believed—people who know they are being watched will behave—isn’t the opposite also true? That is, who’s making sure the people behind the cameras conduct themselves appropriately?

Beyond the Cameras

The police can watch you when you’re in public, but it doesn’t just stop there. Law enforcement also use social media, cell phones, and GPS to combat crime. This is a new type of surveillance entirely, and it often means people end up incriminating themselves without even knowing it, as with the selfie couple above.

In February of this year, just after the security cameras went up around the city, a story broke about a mysterious organization known as Palantir and its operation in New Orleans. The piece detailed an extensive digital surveillance network, and gained national attention.

Palantir, a large tech conglomerate based in Silicon valley, came to New Orleans to test their “predictive policing” software. Predictive policing is exactly what it sounds like: police attempt to anticipate a crime and intervene before the crime actually happens. Now, I know what you’re thinking, and the answer is yes. That is the exact plot of Minority Report. That’s where we’re at.

Predictive policing employs complicated computer algorithms, which comb massive amounts of data—from social media to criminal records, even the weather—as a means to predict who will commit a crime and when.

Abraham Lincoln famously said, “If you look for the bad in people expecting to find it, you surely will.” Unsurprisingly, almost all the data we currently have about predictive policing indicates that it does not serve to decrease crime rates. And, like video surveillance, replicates and increases systemic bias against minorities in the realm of law enforcement.

In New Orleans, predictive policing was integrated and employed almost entirely in secret for years. Only Landrieu and a very tight circle around him knew anything about the work Palantir was doing. Not even city council was aware of the program, to say nothing of attorneys and public defenders.

In a court of law, the prosecutor is required to disclose information and evidence on which they built their case. This process is known as discovery. However, the surveillance data gathered from Palantir’s program was routinely used to prosecute individuals in court without ever divulging the source of their evidence.

The city’s deal with Palantir began as far back as 2012. That’s right, five years before the mass surveillance camera program was implemented into the city, the local government was already amassing near inconceivable amounts of surveillance data on its citizens without their knowledge.

As attorneys, we always encourage individuals to know their rights when dealing with law enforcement. Unfortunately, in the digital age, the boundaries between public and private life are being broken down at a rapid pace, and laws surrounding surveillance have yet to be established in any extensive capacity.

The police can watch you and monitor your physical and digital lives, often without any knowledge or consent on your part. Things like social media posts, text messages, email—all of it can be evidence used against you in a criminal proceeding. The moral of the story is that in 2018, everything you say, do, or post—even your selfies—can be used against you in a court of law.

Contact a Criminal Defense Attorney at Bloom Legal

If you are being investigated for a crime, a warrant has been issued for you, or if you have been arrested, you should speak to an attorney as soon as possible. The experienced criminal defense attorneys at Bloom Legal can help get you out of jail, gather evidence and build your defense,  and do everything possible to help you avoid conviction.

We have been fighting for criminal justice in the greater New Orleans area for almost 15 years. Call us today for a free consultation, and to find out how we can help you.

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