In seven years, New Orleans’ crime camera program has yielded six indictments: three for crimes caught on video and three for bribes and kickbacks a vendor is accused of paying a former city official to sell the cameras to City Hall.
Given that ignominious track record and the millions the city has paid for a camera network that rarely worked, Mayor Mitch Landrieu unceremoniously pulled the plug on the project Thursday.
“Most of us can agree that based on the way that they were installed, based on the way that they operated and the way that they were not maintained, that they were not a good investment,” Landrieu said as he announced his proposal to scratch the program from the city budget. The budget requires City Council approval.
For now, the cameras will stay in place, but won’t be maintained. Landrieu said he wants to wait to see if they are ever something they could use again before taking them down.
“When you really prioritize and you’re asking whether that is the best money spent on trying to make the streets safe, we concluded given our financial pressures and our requirement to the city that we not waste money, that that’s not a good priority for us,” Landrieu said.
Once upon a time, the cameras were not only a priority, but they also were touted as a panacea for a crime-stricken city. Mayor Ray Nagin introduced the concept in 2003 and handed the program to his whiz-kid technology chief, Greg Meffert.
On a national television interview and in a USA Today article in 2004, Meffert bragged that New Orleans was blazing a new crime-fighting trail. He also claimed that a pilot project in the Iberville public housing development had reduced murders by 57 percent. At the time, he laughed off suggestions that the statistics were skewed by the tiny sample size.
Should the city’s crime cameras be scrapped?
But the tables turned late last year when he testified in a civil court trial. As he tried to defend his decision to replace the original crime camera vendors with a team led by a buddy from the private sector named Mark St. Pierre, Meffert said in fact, the sample size in the Iberville trial was too small to matter.
In 2005 and 2006, a larger camera project failed to get off the ground as various St. Pierre companies set up deals with computer giant Dell Inc. to sell them to New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Savannah, Ga., and elsewhere. St. Pierre gave Meffert a corporate credit card, letting him charge big sums for personal items while he was city tech chief, including exotic vacations for him, Nagin and their families.
As soon as the civil trial ended last November, U.S. Attorney Jim Letten indicted St. Pierre, Meffert and Meffert’s wife Linda, charging them with a 63-count corruption scheme centered on the crime camera deal and the money St. Pierre paid to the Mefferts.
After Meffert left City Hall, there were only 53 Dell cameras in place. Nagin still promised a network of 250 cameras, but the wireless connections that were supposed to enable the cameras to communicate images back to police stations had major problems. A new vendor tried to establish a different process, but a new scandal broke out. Nagin’s new technology chief, Anthony Jones, was accused of taking gratuities from a vendor and falsifying payments. An audit found the city didn’t get the network it asked for, and Jones was fired.
Records of exactly how much money the city spent on the cameras are spotty. The city has paid for equipment, but also for contract personnel to install and maintain the system over the years. The total could be as high as $10 million. A city tally of the contract costs in early 2009 totaled more than $6 million. A review of the post-Meffert crime camera contract earlier this year showed that 200 cameras and network equipment under the latest contract would have cost another $4 million.
Nagin’s last crime camera vendor, Technology Consortium Group, claimed all of the units were working in February. But after Ronal Serpas took over as police superintendent in May, he said he found many of them were still down.
“There were many days that so few were operating that they had no impact,” Serpas said Thursday, adding that the NOPD found that private cameras provided more help to detectives.