In the summer of 2022, with a spike in violent crime hitting New Orleans, the city council allowed police to use facial-recognition software to track down suspects — a technology that the mayor, police and businesses supported as an effective, fair tool for identifying criminals quickly. A year after the system went online, data show that the results have been almost exactly the opposite, Politico reports. Records show that computer facial recognition in New Orleans has low effectiveness, is rarely associated with arrests and is disproportionately used on Black people. The first facial recognition search under the new policy occurred on October 21, 2022, using surveillance footage to help identify a Black man suspected of a shooting by matching his picture with a database of mugshots. The results: “Unable to match, low quality photo.” Over the next year, the police department would see a string of largely similar results.
A review of nearly a year’s worth of New Orleans facial recognition requests shows that the system failed to identify suspects a majority of the time — and that nearly every use of the technology from last October to this August was on a Black person. Although it has not led to false arrests, which have happened in other cities, the story of police facial identification in New Orleans appears to confirm what civil rights advocates have argued for years, as police departments and federal agencies nationwide increasingly adopt high-tech identification techniques: it amplifies, rather than corrects, the underlying human biases of the authorities that use them. “This department hung their hat on this,” said New Orleans Councilmember JP Morrell, a Democrat who voted against lifting the ban and has seen the NOPD data. Its use of the system, he says, has been “wholly ineffective and pretty obviously racist.” Facial recognition has many uses — you can use it to unlock your phone, to help find yourself in group photos and to board a flight. No use of the $3.8 billion industry's technology has concerned lawmakers and civil rights advocates more than law enforcement.