An upstart private security company owned by a wealthy law enforcement booster will deploy and oversee surveillance cameras throughout the city of Lafayette, with no clearly defined restrictions on the data the network collects.
On Nov. 24, the Guillory administration awarded a no-charge contract that allows the firm to mount cameras to city-owned utility poles, adding to the reach of a surveillance system owned by the Lafayette Police Department.
Styled as a cooperative endeavor agreement, the contract licenses the Lafayette Police Department to use the camera footage for “law enforcement purposes” only but appears to place no such restriction on the firm, Crime Fighters of Louisiana, which will own, maintain and operate the cameras — which are primarily license plate readers — and the data it collects. The contract expires in four years.
Crime Fighters is owned by Hewitt Brooks Bernard, a Lafayette businessman most prominently associated with Louisiana Safety Systems, an oil services company he owns.
Extensive redactions on the contract, which was obtained by The Current through a public records request, obscure the limitations on Bernard’s use of the data and other details of the operating arrangement.
In an interview with The Current, Bernard acknowledges that the contract affords him broad discretion over the data itself. LPD maintains a retention policy for the small-scale surveillance system it already owns. Bernard, who lives in a heavily surveilled home between Scott and Lafayette, is functionally the only custodian of the data.
Brooks Bernard is an enthusiastic law enforcement backer. Crime Fighters itself grew out of his effort to secure his home, he says. Several years ago, an armed man was standing outside the gate of his expansive estate, an incident that rattled Bernard. He says he called a meeting with the sheriff, Scott’s police chief and then-Lafayette Police Toby Aguillard to discuss the matter.
“I said I didn’t want our town to become crime riddled,” Bernard tells The Current. “Having this [happen] outside my gate to my home is unacceptable to me, so [I asked] ‘what can we do to try to be proactive and support you guys?’” Bernard says it was Aguillard who suggested he install license-plate readers outside his home to assist their mutual efforts, advice that ultimately led to the launch of Crime Fighters. “They said it would be a big benefit to them and to me,” Bernard says, noting that LPD has continued to use his services without any contractual arrangement.
Aguillard could not be reached for comment.
An active political donor, Bernard has given thousands to Sheriff Mark Garber since 2017 and is backing Duson Police Chief Kip Judice’s bid for city marshal. Through Louisiana Safety Systems, he donated to Guillory and to his opponent Carlee Alm-LaBar in the 2019 mayor-president’s race.
Disclosure: Carlee Alm-LaBar serves on The Current’s board of directors. Our board members have no editorial discretion. Read our editorial policies here.
Guillory signed the contract last week without the council’s knowledge or approval, and in possible violation of the home rule charter, LCG’s governing document. City Council Chairman Pat Lewis and Councilwoman Liz Hebert both tell The Current they were unaware of the contract.
City-Parish Attorney Greg Logan says the mayor-president’s authority stems from a charter provision that allows him to execute agreements associated with items specified in the annual budget. In this case, Logan cites a line item for “neighborhood camera maintenance” in the police department’s budget. But this contract goes much farther than maintaining cameras already owned by the police department.
Reached for comment, LCG spokesman Jamie Angelle deferred to the legal department.
While the contract comes at no charge to LCG, there is an in-kind exchange of value, according to attorneys who reviewed the contract on The Current’s behalf. Use of public utility poles and access to data collection are both valuable in the eyes of government contracting, but placing a price tag on the data is murky. State law requires contracts of substantial value to go to public bid. This contract was neither publicized, nor was it processed through LCG’s professional services committee, which reviews agreements with third-party contractors on public projects.
Setting aside the legal question, the council was nonetheless unaware of Guillory’s negotiations with Crime Fighters. The mayor-president and four of the five council members have been at frequent odds over the past year, most recently over the council’s effort to control city tax dollars in the annual budget. An avowed “constitutionalist,” Guillory has been protective of his own privacy: LCG sued the parish assessor and clerk of court on his behalf in August to have his home address removed from all public records.
“I’m just a small operation with two people,” says Bernard, who quickly ticks off a long list of other agencies he works with, quantifying that 600 officers from different agencies have access to his system. “We did it as a volunteer, as a donation to support all law enforcement agencies, schools, churches, different things like that,” the businessman adds. “Everything has been 100 percent given to the agencies, law enforcement for free. It all started out with the crime at my house.”
Bernard speaks with pride about the crimes his company has helped solve, rapidly detailing the role it played in solving a host of crimes, including a recent murder in DeQuincy and a 2017 attempted kidnapping of a 5-year-old girl on his street, a crime Bernard says was thwarted after the abductor realized he’d been caught on the home’s cameras. “That guy’s in jail now for a charge just identical in Colorado. … He’s still not stood [trial] here, but when he comes the video evidence is going to be irrefutable and he will be found guilty. You don’t need to put anybody on the stand. You just press play on the tape.”
Law enforcement officials attest to the effectiveness and quality of his equipment (images from the Duson PD reveal high-quality captures) and the businessman’s intentions. For a couple of years now, cameras have assisted investigators with the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office, a sheriff’s spokesman confirmed, with no contract in place. Bernard is about to generate what he says is his first revenue from the city of Abbeville, which has asked for extra cameras, after he personally invested about $100,000 in equipment there; the police chief there confirmed this week that the department now has a contract with Crime Fighters. He says he also works with the state fire marshal, state police and various other law enforcement entities from South Texas to Alabama. In May 2018, the town of Duson’s council voted to accept a donation of 12 cameras (it now has 16) from Crime Fighters, after which the mayor signed a contract with the local company, according to minutes from the meeting. Bernard is now a commissioned crime analyst with the Duson PD, police chief Judice tells The Current.
Judice says arrangements were made with Slemco and Entergy to mount the cameras on their poles, and the police department pays about $7,700 a year in SIM card fees and utility costs.
“Initially there were some people that were freaked out [by the idea of private surveillance], and then we were solving crimes and people were like, ‘Can I have one on my street,’” says Judice. “In the past two years we have not had a crime in Duson where we were not able to rely on Crime Fighters.”
Judice says he has no concerns about a small outfit like Crime Fighters using the data outside of law enforcement. “Who’s got the time to worry about that?” the chief asks.
For his part, Bernard says he is often approached by people seeking his data but insists it’s off limits to anyone outside of law enforcement (he says on a few occasions he has had to turn it over because of a court order). “Private detectives call me all the time. I’m not giving jack to a private detective,” Bernard says.
On one occasion, however, Bernard did turn footage over to a private attorney after the attorney sent him a demand letter. “I think I have to give it to them when they make a demand. I told him I wasn’t giving it to him unless he paid me $1,000,” Bernard says. “I would have lost the legal case had I gone to court,” he adds.
Earlier acquisition of security systems at LPD came with much more obvious public discussion and oversight.
In 2015, LPD spent $750,000 to buy and deploy cameras in 52 high-crime locations and equip a mobile surveillance vehicle. The maintenance budget item Logan says justifies Guillory’s unitary power on the Crime Fighters contract pays for that system’s upkeep. Data and hardware are owned by the police department. At the time, former Police Chief Jim Craft said footage captured by the system would be stored for seven days, unless LPD downloaded recordings during an investigation. Then-Councilman Brandon Shelvin advocated for the system at the time.
Private surveillance contracting is a lucrative, if controversial, business nationwide. Civil liberties watchdogs have voiced concern about unfettered access to surveillance data with little public oversight. In that industry, newcomer Crime Fighters is barely a small fish, and Bernard says his enterprise is born of a genuine concern for public safety. And while reportedly offering high-quality equipment, which he says is superior to that owned by LPD, Bernard’s cameras thus far don’t have facial recognition capabilities. The company has not fine-tuned its business model yet, though Bernard has ambitions to take it nationwide. He does not have plans to package and sell the data collected for profit — a practice commonly called data mining that intensifies privacy concerns.
Still, the arrangement with Lafayette doesn’t put much, if any, restriction on what he can or can’t do with the data he collects.
“I own the system; I control the system,” Bernard says.