The gist: City Council members are questioning the mayor-president’s justification for signing a controversial security camera contract with a private company without their knowledge or approval but remain unsure how they might use the various remedies at their disposal.
The Current first reported the contract Dec. 4, after receiving a heavily redacted version via a public records request. The contract allows Crime Fighters, an upstart private security company owned by wealthy law enforcement booster Brooks Bernard, to deploy and oversee surveillance cameras throughout the city of Lafayette and some unincorporated areas of the parish. The agreement allows Crime Fighters to mount the cameras on Lafayette Utilities System’s poles, and the contract appears to have no clearly defined restrictions on how Bernard’s company can use the data collected by the system.
“I own the system,” Bernard told The Current. “I control the system.” Bernard, who for years has offered his system for free to multiple law enforcement agencies, schools and churches, says he will “find a way to make money eventually.”
Guillory has not yet turned over the full contract to council members. City and parish council members (it’s unclear why parish members were included) received the redacted version of the contract from City-Parish Attorney Greg Logan the day The Current’s story was published; City Council members serve as the governing body for LUS and have sole discretion over LPD’s budget.
“At the request of Mayor-President Josh Guillory, I am providing you with a copy of the Crime Fighters agreement for security cameras being deployed throughout the City and Parish free of charge by Crime Fighters in cooperation with our law enforcement agencies,” Logan wrote. “Some of you may have already seen the cameras attached to SLEMCO utility poles in various parts of the parish in conjunction with Crime Fighters, LLC and the Sheriff’s office.”
Sheriff Mark Garber has been using the company’s video footage in his office’s investigations for the past couple of years with no formal contract in place, spokesman John Mowell confirms.
“There are redactions all over the place,” says Councilman Glenn Lazard. “What’s redacted? That could change the whole meaning of the entire thing.”
Assistant City-Parish Attorney Mike Hebert cited an exemption in Louisiana’s public records law for “security procedures” in explaining the redactions on the copy of the public contract provided to The Current.
Such exemptions, if proper in this instance, would not apply to the City Council.
This is not how camera security contracting went down in the past. When Lafayette Consolidated Government was drafting the contract with Redflex Traffic Systems in 2007 to provide speed and red light cameras — only after companies submitted proposals for the work — members of the then-consolidated council played an active role, recalls former Councilman Bruce Conque. “Not only were we able to review and approve the contract, several of us were part of the research effort,” Conque says.
Former Mayor-President Joel Robideaux eliminated the RedFlex program — which for years had been wildly controversial — in 2017 when the contract expired, vowing at the time that a partial replacement contract to put cameras in school zones would go before the council.
The Lafayette Police Department owns surveillance cameras it purchased in 2015. The appropriation was approved by the council at the time, including a recurring budget item for camera maintenance. Logan, the city-parish attorney, cites that maintenance line item in arguing the mayor-president could sign off on the agreement without the council. But the terms of the contract resemble a franchise agreement, which would normally require an ordinance to execute.
Council members aren’t buying Logan’s camera “maintenance” argument. Both Cook and Lazard, a lawyer, question the administration’s justification for foregoing council approval.
“It’s not going to fly with me,” says Lazard. “I think it is a franchise agreement, and it should have been an ordinance. On the surface, I can tell you I’m uncomfortable with it.”
Cook also wants a better idea of the privacy protections in the contract. Both Guillory and his spokesman, Jamie Angelle, have commented publicly in recent days that there are restrictions on how the data can be used, claiming those are included in the contract. “There are some limits as far as what can be done with it,” Angelle told reporters last week at a Covid briefing. “A lot of that information was redacted.” In a podcast a few days later, Guillory said information, except that used by law enforcement, would be kept confidential. “There are protections, as far as people’s information,” he said, without specifying them.
There is a broad limitation that LCG use the cameras for “law enforcement purposes.” But that’s not a powerful restraint on LPD or other users bound by that requirement. ACLU Louisiana staff attorney Bruce Hamilton says he’s never before encountered an arrangement where a government has handed over this much surveillance power to a private company. Even restricting use of the data for “law enforcement purposes” is ripe for abuse, he says, without some kind of public oversight.
“It’s hard to define law enforcement purposes. Investigation without reasonable suspicion could be construed as a law enforcement purpose, but it also walks a constitutional tightrope,” Hamilton says. “There are all kinds of scenarios where the requesting party may claim a law enforcement purpose, and it may not be a legitimate one.”
Objecting to the contract would again put the council in a quandary over legal advice. For months now, the council has sparred with Logan over its right to hire a special counsel, and with Logan siding with the administration on this contract issue, the council would have to push the issue on its own. Getting an attorney Logan appoints to buck him is likely a futile effort. “We don’t have the privilege of having our own special counsel for the city,” Council Chairman Pat Lewis says.
Council members are still mulling their next move. The contract terms allow either LCG or Bernard to cancel the arrangement with 30 days notice. The council could move to challenge the contract by resolution. Lazard, who is still recovering from cancer treatment (he expects to return to the council in late January or early February), says he hopes to hear more feedback from constituents at Wednesday’s public comment period after the regular meeting (council meetings are on Wednesdays through the end of the year).
“I think what happens at the council meeting will be a pretty good indication as to what the public sentiment is, even though it’s not an agenda item,” Lazard says. — Additional reporting by Christiaan Mader