City approves agreement with Project NOLA camera system

By HASKEL BURNS,

Despite two Hattiesburg City Council members voting to table the proposal of the Project NOLA camera system during Tuesday’s meeting, a second vote – this time a 4-1 approval – set the stage for an agreement between the city and Project NOLA to provide the program in the Hub City.

The program, which is based at the University of New Orleans, provides cameras to residents, businesses and municipalities to help reduce crime by dramatically increasing police efficiency and citizen awareness. Under the program, residents and business owners can request the cameras – which are equipped with gunshot detection and license plate recognition – to be installed at their home or business.

“I have seen, over my years, that some people get convicted of committing a crime they didn’t commit – we’ve had a lot of innocent people be convicted,” said Council President Carter Carroll, who voted in favor of the measure. “These cameras will now help (police) to be more accurate in who’s committing the crimes, and catching the person who needs to be convicted.

“But I also see it preventing crimes. It’s not going to stop two guys who are at a bar and they get into a big argument and they get shot in the parking lot. But these burglaries that are going on, drive-bys, drug deals, things like that – when you catch those people, then you’re stopping that crime from happening the next day or the next week or something like that. So it will prevent a lot of those crimes, and a lot of those crimes are causing other crimes that are more heinous.”

Cameras transmit video to the Project NOLA Real-Time Crime Information Center at UNO, where video may be live-monitored, stored and re-broadcast to local law enforcement. Those hosting a Project NOLA crime camera may also view live and recorded video via a smart device, phone or PC.

For privacy purposes, Project NOLA maintains camera video for about 10 days and provides camera footage only to law enforcement. The cost of the cameras includes an installation fee of up to $475, depending on the type of camera, and an annual fee of $240, which includes service, licenses, bandwidth and transmission of video. Those fees would be paid by the individual or business requesting the cameras.

Bringing Project NOLA to Hattiesburg was first recommended by Hattiesburg Police Chief Anthony Parker in November, when he said Project NOLA’s network of more than 25,000 high-definition crime cameras in New Orleans helped the New Orleans Police Department in 2018 reduce the local murder rate to the lowest since 1971.

“The Hattiesburg Police Department strives to be transparent and accountable with programming that we’re trying to implement,” Parker told council members. “It’s our responsibility to plan for the future needs of law enforcement in the Hattiesburg area, and it’s our job to make sure (residents) have a safe environment here in Hattiesburg.

“The Project NOLA crime camera program will reinforce to the offender that there will be consequences associated with their actions. The program was recommended during a conversation with several police chiefs, and the Natchez police chief recommended it highly to me based on the results he had using this kind of system.”

On Tuesday, Ward 2 Councilwoman Deborah Delgado and Ward 5 Councilman Nicholas Brown voted to table the measure, saying they would like to see more research and feedback, and suggesting that council was perhaps moving too fast on the issue. After that vote failed 3-2, however, Brown voted to adopt the measure, leading to the 4-1 approval.

“After long discussions and feedback from the community, I have come to the conclusion that the majority that I’ve spoken with feel that this project has more pros than cons,” Brown said. “Although this will not prevent crime 100 percent, it will be helpful in deterring crime and helpful in solving crimes.

“But with this project, we need to take into account peoples’ privacy. And also, with these cameras, we need a community service division within our police department where there is interaction and stronger relationships being built with our citizens.”

Delgado said although she is a strong advocate of preventing and solving crime, one of her major concerns is that Project NOLA might not be the right way to go about those measures.

“I appreciate the concern about what has gone on in our community, and we certainly do need to solve those crimes,” she said. “The major concern, though, has to do with using this project – because it sounds like something that has been great for other communities – to give our community a false sense of security, and I think that’s just what it does.

“I do want to see cameras for certain things – I think that if businesses want to have cameras that will enable them to catch perpetrators after a crime has been committed, I understand that. But cameras have a place. The concern is whether government should be surveilling its individuals and citizens 24/7.”

Now that the agreement between the city and Project NOLA has been approved, the administration will consider bringing 10 cameras to various businesses around the city to start the initiative. That measure also will be brought before council, and if approved, the city will foot the bill for that initial round of cameras.

“I certainly share a skepticism of government surveillance, but I also believe the principal responsibility of municipal government is to keep our citizens safe,” Mayor Toby Barker said. “I understand that crime goes in cycles, and I understand that this proposal is not a silver bullet and will not fix all of the woes in Hattiesburg.

“But I do believe it can help – it can help law enforcement do its job better.”