Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell, is the author of the novel “1984,” written 69 years ago. In it Blair describes a police state with omnipresent surveillance cameras operated by “Big Brother.” If only Blair were alive today to see just how prophetic he was. We are not quite to the “Big Brother”-infiltrated society Blair envisioned, but we’re heading in that direction.
Take New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s plan targeting businesses that sell alcohol. The mayor wants them to install exterior cameras on their property and then link the feed to a network already in place with other cameras the city owns. If the City Council green-lights it, government bureaucrats at a central location would monitor at least 1,500 live cameras spying on the citizens of New Orleans.
The Orwellian plan mandates that all bars, convenience stores, restaurants and even mom-and-pop grocery stores pay for the cost of buying and installing the camera equipment. The Real Time Crime Monitoring Center is where they’ll spy on us. It opened last month.
New Orleans Councilman Jason Williams doesn’t like the idea of Landrieu’s spy network, saying there’s been little evidence to show cameras reduce crime. Landrieu originally floated the idea of forcing businesses to install cameras last year when he unveiled his $40 million dollar security plan.
“I still, since those early conversations, have not seen any data that show these extreme measures would make the public any safer,” Williams said.
The Landrieu plan would require businesses to keep footage from their cameras for two weeks. Deputy Mayor Ryan Berni says the cameras would help police solve crime.
“There are nuisance bars, stores and venues that are creating quality of life issues and public safety issues in their neighborhoods,” Deputy Mayor Ryan Berni said.
But wouldn’t it make more sense to target the businesses Berni claims are generating crime instead of creating a massive spy network? And why single out only grocery stores, bars, and restaurants? Why not force all businesses to mount cameras?
“There isn’t any really specific correlation between bars and crime,” said Cole Newton, owner of the bar Twelve Mile Limit in Mid-City. “They’re using the theoretical association between drinking and criminal activity to help bolster a citywide surveillance state which is deeply uncomfortable. That’s not a way to engender trust between law enforcement and the community.”
It’s no secret most crime in New Orleans is concentrated in select neighborhoods where drug deals and shootings are common. If you’re going to spy on people to solve crime, wouldn’t that be where you would want to set up cameras? But my experience with politicians is that before they target certain people, they weigh the constituents' political clout. The reason tobacco taxes are so high is there aren’t enough smokers to make up a meaningful voting block. The same is true for business owners who sell alcohol. There aren’t that many of them, so the political capital spent targeting them is minimal. This is why politicians so often demonize the super-wealthy. They are few in number.
If Landrieu were serious about fighting crime, he wouldn’t have initiated an NOPD hiring freeze when first elected. As a result, the department shrank by almost a third under his leadership. And District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro says his budget is down since Landrieu took office, while at the same time the budget of the public defenders office is up 182 percent. Maybe the mayor should’ve spent money on actual crime-fighting instead of forcing private businesses to fund a giant surveillance network.
Government can always implement policies making us safer. A universally mandated 25 mph speed limit would save thousands of lives each year. Politicians could pass laws outlawing fast food or require we all eat healthy and exercise. Think of the lives that would save. And it may be true 1,500 cameras spying on us across the city will help solve some crimes. But government already knows too much about us. The IRS alone knows what we make, where we bank, what we do with much of the money we earn. It knows how much we pay for our house and car. Do we really want “Big Brother” watching us too?
Dan Fagan is a former TV and radio broadcaster who lives in Metairie. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.