NEW ORLEANS -- Video after video of crimes caught on tape in New Orleans are helping New Orleans Police identify suspects in those crimes.
It’s exactly what the city of New Orleans controversial crime camera system installed under former Mayor Ray Nagin had hoped to do.
Now, a decade later, a new public crime camera system is being tested in the French Quarter and there is a new effort to coordinate private surveillance cameras to help fight crime.
Private surveillance cameras have been capturing more and more crimes on video, with many looking like shadowy figures jumping across the screen. Those shadowy figures are often enough to help New Orleans police identify suspects, as was the case in two French Quarter stabbings.
New Orleans police edited and uploaded surveillance video of the suspect in the stabbings less than a day after they happened, one at the intersection of Burgundy and Ursulines streets, followed by another stabbing at a Marigny bar the same night.
Police continued to search for that suspect, 25-year-old Onishona Villareal, Wednesday.
“I think the shortest turnaround time that we've had from a crime to actually posting the video online is two and a half hours,” said Larry Lane.
He is the volunteer behind the Youtube channel that detectives in the 8th Police District are continuously using. He’s also behind the effort to link police to the blanket of surveillance cameras in the French Quarter and the CBD.
Lane and Bob Simms, the chairman of the French Quarter Management District’s Security Task Force, created what’s now called SafeCams 8.
“We would like to get coverage on every block in the French Quarter. It's not because we're Big Brother trying to watch what people do,” Simms continued, “It's really to protect themselves and to protect the visitors who come through.”
SafeCams 8 is a database of private surveillance camera locations in the French Quarter with updated contact information for the people who own them.
As soon as a crime happens, detectives can call property owners or caretakers and arrange to look at the video.
“I've invested about 100 hours in training detectives on how to process the video,” Lane said.
“You can put your private video where you want on your property. The government could never do that,” said NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas, “If I own a business, I can put the camera by my back door. If I own a house, I can put the camera by my garage at eye level. That's where we are getting this amazing video, these crystal clear pictures of people committing crimes.”
The NOPD has posted more than 200 videos so far and as a recent video of an armed robbery posted on the Youtube channel from a Carrollton Avenue robbery shows, detectives are using it beyond the boundaries of the 8th district.
“I think there is an effort to expand this city-wide. I think some of the things that have to happen is that you have to make an investment to keep this map current,” Lane said.
“Working with the New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation, we are about to unroll what's called SafeCams NOLA,” Serpas said.
According to the superintendent, it will be a city-wide version of the SafeCams8 database. Right now, they have about 1,300 cameras registered in 391 locations for SafeCams 8.
The map of locations of the registered cameras shows significant coverage of the French Quarter. Simms said it’s one of the realities of life in the age of technology.
“You go in stores, you go to the airport, no matter where you go today, there's a surveillance camera,” Simms said.
SafeCams 8 is different from Project NOLA. Project NOLA is a privately-monitored network of cameras that feed into the Harahan headquarters of a surveillance camera company called CCTV Wholesalers.
Owner, and founder of Project NOLA, Bryan Lagarde recently announced he was adding 40 new cameras to his network in Hollygrove after getting a City Council grant from Susan Guidry.
“I've gone and checked out his office and the video and how he does it and his process and I'm comfortable with that,” Guidry said.
Lagarde, a private business owner, has total control over the video that gets beamed back to his Harahan headquarters. People who pay for and install cameras on his network can choose to record their own copy of the video.
CCTV Wholesalers sells people single camera “Project NOLA” kits without installation for about $300. Lagarde said CCTV makes a “corporate match donation” for every one that people buy to Project NOLA because he says the cost is double that.
“Keep in mind the average cost of a crime camera either on a pole or something like that around the city is usually between $15 to $30,000. We're doing it for less than $500,” Lagarde said.
Last Fall, Lagarde was granted non-profit status from the IRS. From 2009 to 2011, he reported no assets, no expenditures to the federal government for Project NOLA. Despite his corporate match donations, he said he didn't solicit or receive any donations to report to the IRS.
Lagarde said he has more than 600 high definition cameras in his network, which he claims the largest of its kind in the country. But sources with access to his map say that includes a large number of "future locations."
We asked Lagarde how many of them are currently working.
“When a crime camera goes down, it's extraordinarily rare when it's actually a camera failure. We've had maybe one or two actual camera failures. It's probably zero,” Lagarde said.
Lagarde said last week in an email that the most cameras that are down at any one time is 20, usually because something happens to the person's internet service.
He issued a press release recently he was expanding Project NOLA beyond Orleans Parish, but no one outside Orleans Parish has signed on yet.
Experts say Lagarde's reliance on people's broadband internet is more functional than the city's first attempt at a crime camera system. It relied on cell service.
“We learned that the data transmission of video signals in the quarter is a real challenge. We don't have the fiber optic network that many cities have. We've been relying on old technology for data transmission,” Simms said about problems with getting video signals out of the French Quarter.
Even with the success of SafeCams 8, the French Quarter Management District is looking at installing a networked system of its own. They chose not to go with Project NOLA because they said they wanted a public entity to operate it.
“The two go together. You have a system on the public right of way that's looking at the entire district, then you have private cameras that are looking at people's private property,” Simms said.
Right now, they're testing some hidden cameras on light poles outside of Antoine’s Restaurant to see if a new public system using new technology can work.
They're using the same company, Active Solutions, to try and pioneer the new technology. Active solutions and another company called Southern Electronics, created the city's first crime camera network.
The two companies won a $16 million dollar judgment in a civil lawsuit alleging the city stole and sold their crime camera technology, and used it to put up additional crime cameras that ultimately failed to work.
Some of the corruption allegations former Mayor Ray Nagin was just convicted of were brought to light in their lawsuit.
The French Quarter Management District would pay for and oversee the new public network if it gets off the ground, with New Orleans Police also having access to it.