NEW ORLEANS -- Every time Virginia Blanque goes in or out of her front door, she's captured on camera.
“To be honest with you, I use it more to see who's ringing the doorbell than anything else,” Blanque said.
She put surveillance cameras on her Mid-City home to both deter crime and to capture it.
“I think crime cameras in areas that are hot spots, that have a lot of criminal activity, it's a way of taking the neighbor out of the activity,” Blanque said.
The private surveillance network of New Orleans
No one really knows how many New Orleanians now have digital eyes on their homes.
On major streets like Freret Street, there are a lot more of them on businesses, just ask neighborhood activist Kellie Grengs.
“We do have a great number already on the corridor that private homes and businesses have invested in. But in our neighborhoods -- two, three blocks off of the Freret corridor -- we want visitors to feel safe parking in the neighborhood,” Grengs said.
Grengs got a grant to pay for more cameras in the neighborhood, and is buying them from Project Nola. “The service they're bringing to the city is amazing.”
Recently, Project Nola video helped police name 29-year-old Briceson Carter as a suspect in the murder of 38-year-old Brandy Keenan. She was found bound and shot in the 9th Ward in October.
“We see people with bloody shirts. We see people with bloody shirts and guns in their hands. We see people being led off to their execution. We see people executed,” said Brian Lagarde (pictured below), who started Project Nola.
Project Nola is a network of hundreds of cameras across New Orleans that all feed video to the Harahan office of his surveillance camera business, CCTC Wholesalers.
“We have close to 600 cameras that are streaming into this room that we can access at a moment's notice and begin providing real-time information to responding police officers and detectives,” Lagrade said.
And Lagarde's network is expanding.
The IRS recently granted Project Nola non-profit status. In October, he announced his first big donation: $10,000 for 40 cameras in the Leonidas neighborhood.
“We've become the largest, high-definition crime camera system in the country,” Legarde said.
Many cities across America have beefed up their surveillance networks in recent years, using large homeland security grants.
New York City now has 6,000 public and private cameras. Chicago has 2,000 in their police department network. Houston has 350 and Washington, D.C has 123.
"There are larger city-wide crime camera systems, but they're not using high-definition cameras or they're not networked like ours are,” Lagarde said.
'We're not Big Brother'
The use of private surveillance cameras is rampant. But what is unique in New Orleans is that we have a private surveillance network.
“We're private. We're not Big Brother. We're not even looking at these cameras unless something bad happens. It's not public record, so the video stays with us,” Lagarge said.
Lagarde has exclusive control over the video that Project Nola records at his Harahan office.
People who link to the network, through cameras either bought from Lagarde's business or from another source, can record the video in their homes. If they don't, they have to ask Lagarde for it.
“Of course, we can say no, but we always try to help those who are hosting our cameras with any legitimate requests that they have, Legarde said.
“For example, we've had people wanting to ask us, ‘Somebody's dog doodied on our front lawn’ or ‘I think my child broke curfew.’ I'm sorry, but we can't help you with those type of things.”
In some cases, like the case of a fire someone started at a St. Claude neighborhood bar, Project Nola bypassed the owner of the camera and will only send it to investigators.
Lagarde says that's what the system was designed for. And because it's a private company, the public has no right to the video.
“Project Nola as I understand it is a private, non-profit corporation and they don't have to do anything upon request by the public. They can, if they choose,” Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana.
Lagarde says the people in the Project Nola network want it that way. He also won't say where his cameras are.
“Most people don't want their cameras to be known. There's really no point for other people to know where the cameras are. The police know where the cameras are and that's really all that's important to us and to the people who are hosting the cameras,” Lagarde said.
The ACLU says their biggest concern with surveillance systems is how long the footage is kept.
“It's the same question whether it's private or public, is whether or not there should be a permanent database that should indicate who has been where and when to be stored without restriction,” Esman said.
Lagarde says he stores the video for ten days, then recycles it.
Esman also says the private nature of the Project Nola network may make some think twice before plugging in. “You then have a private corporation that has a database that they can sell, give away, digitally manipulate -- not that I think they would -- but they could and certainly, somebody else could.”
“We wouldn't sell the footage that we collect,” Legarde said. “But you could. It would be against everything that we stand for.”
Those questions are why some, like Virginia Blanque, choose to keep their cameras under their own watch.
“The camera records also my activity. Anything I do, whether I want anyone else to see it or not and whether it's good or bad. I feel like I don't need someone watching that,” said Blanque.
Private cameras save city thousands
Other neighborhoods like Freret love how the Project Nola system works.
“They've already helped solve so many crimes and catch so many criminals and it's a system that actually works,” Kellie Grengs said.
Especially since the city's attempt at a crime camera network cost millions of dollars, and to save hundreds of thousands in maintenance costs, Mayor Mitch Landrieu pulled the plug on it.
While Lagarde won't say how many cases his video has been involved in (he says he's lost count), the city's system solved fewer crimes than you can count on one hand.
We asked the Landrieu administration how they feel about a private company operating a traditionally public security program. Landrieu’s press secretary Tyler Gamble said, “We appreciate the cooperation of citizens, private companies and local organizations, like Project Nola, who are eager to assist law enforcement when one of their cameras has video that may help in solving a crime.”
The city also contracts out with a private company to run its traffic and speed camera program. There are now 72 of them around the city. The state department of transportation also has 29 traffic cameras that they stream live to the web.