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High-tech crime fighting tool now defunct

Five years ago, the New Orleans Police Department thought itself at the forefront of technology.

Brendan McCarthy / Eyewitness News
Email: bmccarthy@wwltv.com | Twitter: @bmccarthyWWL

Five years ago, the New Orleans Police Department thought itself at the forefront of technology.

Officials boasted about crime cameras across the city and talked excitedly about new software that would pinpoint gunfire as it happened and alert police.

This kind of technology is being used by law enforcement across the country, to mostly rave reviews.

But now years later, New Orleans, with the nation's highest murder rate, looks to have fallen behind the technological curve.

'We are in the dark in the City of New Orleans,' said Anthony Radosti, of the Metropolitan Crime Commission. 'We have to spend the money. We have to invest in this police department.'

Millions have been spent on technology that's no longer used.

The Ray Nagin-era crime cameras proved to be a boondoggle, snaring more city hall employees than street criminals. The now-defunct program cost the City of New Orleans an estimated $13 million.

And now, we are learning more about another Nagin-era crime-fighting program that cost upwards of a million dollars and is also extinct.

It is called Shot Spotter and it's a technology that uses audio sensors perched on poles to detect the sound of gunshots. The equipment plots the coordinates and immediately alerts police.

'They could actually pinpoint, literally to the spot they were standing in,' Radosti said. 'And the New Orleans Police Department either didn't want the technology, or didn't have the ability to manage the technology.'

Seven months ago, we asked the NOPD for all records concerning the Shot Spotter program.

And weeks ago, the NOPD turned over documents that show the program was in place in 2008 and that it appeared to be mired in disorganization.

The FBI, with a grant, funded the program. Sources say the costs were upwards of one million dollars.

E-mails obtained by WWL-TV appear to show the FBI was displeased with the NOPD's use of the product. Agents called the department, looking for stats and arrest numbers related to the program. The NOPD didn't appear to have generated any.

In fact, one NOPD captain couldn't figure out how to print a report, nor could she find a printer.

In another e-mail, a Shot Spotter executive tells NOPD supervisors that the 'FBI invested heavily in this project' and that the groups want to make it work.

Yet, after the big investment, the feds stopped paying and the program vanished.

'End result, they took the equipment, they moved it somewhere else,' Radosti said.

John Selleck, the Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the FBI's New Orleans division, said the gunshot detection system had been shown to work in other cities.

'The FBI is always looking to work collaboratively with our partners on this type of stuff.,' Selleck said. 'And we are always looking for outside the box answers with regard to how to bring down the problem.'

Selleck declined to speak specifically about the New Orleans program.

' I think probably what it comes down to is it's a leadership decision made by each of the different agencies based upon your needs,' he said. 'In New Orleans, it may have been that they needed officers in patrol vehicles first before they could make the expenditure on the technology.'

Several current, high-ranking NOPD supervisors were once in charge of the gunshot detection system.

The NOPD did not respond to numerous requests for an interview with police higher-ups, but did release a written statement from Superintendent Ronal Serpas.

'Before our administration, the NOPD tested the Shot Spotter system and ultimately discontinued its use,' Serpas said.

He also highlighted several recent technology upgrades in crime mapping, deployment and reporting systems, and noted that the NOPD bought Tasers for officers.

Nonetheless, police departments across the country are paying millions for gunshot detection systems.

The technology is used in Baton Rouge and Gretna. It's in some of the toughest neighborhoods in Jefferson Parish. Sheriff's officials there spoke highly of the equipment, but declined to speak on camera because they didn't want to appear critical of the NOPD.

Today, with millions of dollars spent, New Orleans' crime cameras and gunshot detectors are gone. Police again and again rely on cameras ones purchased and operated by private citizens.

The most used cameras are the city's red light traffic cameras. City Hall expects them to bring in net revenue this year of $13 million, according to a mayoral spokesman.

The full statement from Serpas is here:

'Before our administration, the NOPD tested the Shot Spotter system and ultimately discontinued its use. Since we've been in command, we have made significant upgrades in NOPD's use of technology including the use of Omega Crime View for reporting and mapping, implementation of Lexipol Systems to manage policy development, accountability and implementation, and launch of the Corona software to redeploy manpower more effectively. We've also purchased CopLink and bought tasers. As future funds become available, the NOPD will continue to review existing crime fighting technology for application and potential purchase.'