New Orleans facial recognition tool mostly used against Black suspects

After the New Orleans City Council voted to allow the use of facial recognition software to identify criminals more readily and accurately, reports indicate that the technology was ineffective and erroneous.

This system went into effect in the summer of 2022, and Politico obtained records of the year’s worth of results. The outlet found that not only was the facial recognition tool vastly incapable of identifying suspects, but it was also disproportionately used on Black people.

And from October 2022 to August 2023, almost every facial recognition request regarded a Black suspect.

Politico reported that in total, the department made 19 requests. However, two of them were thrown out because police had identified the suspect before the system’s results came back, while two others were rejected because the program’s application didn’t extend to those crimes.

So, of the 15 requests made by the New Orleans Police Department, 14 concerned Black suspects, the outlet wrote. On top of this, only six of these requests turned up with matches — and half of those were erroneous — while the remaining nine did not pull up a match.

Facial recognition technology has long been controversial. The city of New Orleans previously had banned the use of facial recognition software, which went into effect in 2020 following the death of George Floyd. Then, in 2022, the city reversed course, allowing it to be used.

In the wake of the reversal, the ACLU of Louisiana Advocacy Director Chris Kaiser called the new ordinance “deeply flawed.” He not only pointed out research that indicated that “racial and gender bias” affected the program’s accuracy but also highlighted privacy concerns around the data that the program relies on when identifying potential suspects.

A previous investigation by The Independent revealed that at least six people around the US have been falsely arrested using facial ID technology; all of them are Black. One such arrest occurred in Louisiana, where the use of facial recognition technology led to the wrongful arrest of a Georgia man for a string of purse thefts.

Regardless of the false arrests, at least half of federal law enforcement agencies with officers and a quarter of state and local agencies are using it.

At least one council member acknowledged the shortcomings of this technology. “This department hung their hat on this,” New Orleans Councilmember At-Large JP Morrell told Politico. Mr Morrell voted against using facial recognition last year. After seeing the police department’s data and usage, he said the tool is “wholly ineffective and pretty obviously racist.”

“The data has pretty much proven that advocates were mostly correct,” Mr Morell continued. “It’s primarily targeted towards African Americans and it doesn’t actually lead to many, if any, arrests.”

City councillor Eugene Green, who introduced the measure to lift the ban, holds a different view. He told Politico that he still supports the agency’s use of facial recognition. “If we have it for 10 years and it only solves one crime, but there’s no abuse, then that’s a victory for the citizens of New Orleans.”

It is important to note that despite hiccups with the system’s results, the agency’s use has led to any known false arrests.

“We needed to have significant accountability on this controversial technology,” council member Helena Moreno, who co-authored the initial ban, told the outlet.

New Orleans has a system in place in which the police department is required to provide details of how the tool was used to the City Council on a monthly basis; although Politico disclosed that the department agreed with the council that it could share the data quarterly.

When asking about the potential flaws with the facial recognition tool, as outlined by Politico’s reporting, a New Orleans Police Department spokesperson told The Independent that “race and ethnicity are not a determining factor for which images and crimes are suitable for Facial Recognition review. However, a description of the perpetrator, including race, is a logical part of any search for a suspect and is always a criterion in any investigation.”

The department spokesperson also emphasised that its investigators do not rely solely on facial recognition, “but it is one of multiple tools that can be used to aid in investigations,” like evidence and/or forensics, adding that officers are trained to conduct “bias-free investigations.”

“The lack of arrests in which Facial Recognition Technology was used as a tool, is evidence that NOPD investigators are being thorough in their investigations,” the statement concluded.