All New Orleans businesses that sell alcohol, including bars, convenience stores, restaurants and grocery stores, would be required to have exterior cameras tied into a citywide surveillance system under proposed rules headed to the City Council for debate.
The proposal, a long-discussed part of the security plan Mayor Mitch Landrieu rolled out at the beginning of the year, would add at least 1,500 cameras to the network of 200 city-owned cameras already being put in place.
The suggested requirement has raised the ire of some bar owners and council members, who have said implementing such a program would simply extend the reach of an already suspect surveillance system and further entrench the notion that bars are responsible for crime in the city.
“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.”
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The ordinance is being introduced nearly a year after the idea of requiring cameras at businesses that sell alcohol was first floated as part of the Landrieu administration’s $40 million security plan.
Officials late last month celebrated the opening of a key element of that plan — a Real Time Crime Monitoring Center staffed by city employees watching feeds from a network of cameras in 20 locations throughout the city.
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The ordinance would require all alcoholic beverage outlets to add exterior cameras that feed into the security hub and to keep their video for at least two weeks.
“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. “Far too often there’s an incident where we wish we had camera footage from outside.”
The ordinance was introduced by Councilwoman Stacy Head but was drafted by the Landrieu administration and put forward at its request.
Head said that for her, the most important part of the legislation is not the camera requirement but a provision that would shift permitting for establishments that sell alcohol from the city’s Finance Department to its Safety and Permits Department.
That change, she said, would prevent frequent errors in the issuing of licenses and problems getting information from the Finance Department. It also would consolidate permitting under the city’s One Stop Shop.
Head said she needs to review the other elements of the proposal, including the camera requirement, before committing to them. She said she agreed to introduce the full ordinance “so that it can be vetted publicly and we can have further discussions about moving it into law.”
The surveillance plan has drawn criticism from some other members of the council and was criticized last week by the city’s Office of Independent Police Monitor, which said that more policies and procedures need to be put in place to prevent abuse of the cameras.
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Councilman Jason Williams said the current political climate raised concerns about how surveillance could be used by federal authorities.
“I think we need to step back and look at unintended implications of this endeavor that were not a part of the first conversations that were had” before Donald Trump became president, he said.
And, Williams said, there has been little evidence to show cameras reduce crime. “I still, since those early conversations, have not seen any data that show these extreme measures would make the public any safer,” he said.
The Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans, which has led opposition to much of the security plan, said musicians and artists have often been targeted by law enforcement and would now be watched as they went to and from their jobs. And the range of businesses that sell alcohol would essentially put wide swaths of the city under constant surveillance.
“You’re now up to at least 1,600 cameras, so you can’t get a prescription without being surveilled,” said Ethan Ellestad, the group's executive director. “Every tourist that wants to get a drink, they have to subject themselves to potential federal surveillance. Is that the message we want to send?”
Berni said potential problems would be worked out as the ordinance moves forward. “Obviously, we’re cognizant of people’s privacy concerns,” he said. “We need strong policies and procedures in place, and we will have those.”
At least one group of bar and restaurant owners appears to be on board with the proposed camera requirement, though it remains leery of other potential changes to the city’s alcohol regulations.
Alex Fein, with the French Quarter Business League, said his group of more than 70 businesses on or around Bourbon Street had few complaints about the exterior camera requirement.
“All the businesses in our group have cameras anyway,” he said. “They said they wouldn’t have a problem as long as it wasn’t too expensive.”
Exactly how other portions of the ordinance would impact bars and restaurants in the city are less clear.
The ordinance would give the board that oversees enforcement of the city’s alcohol rules the power to force businesses that violate the rules to install interior cameras. As drafted, those cameras would also have to be tied into the city’s surveillance network, though Berni said that was an error and would be taken out of the ordinance.
Berni said that provision codifies a practice that already has been used when the board reaches agreement with problematic businesses.
Berni cast most of the measure as essentially "clean-up" legislation to make the city’s rules governing businesses that sell alcohol comply with changes to the comprehensive zoning ordinance.
But some of those elements are also raising concerns.
One, which would allow a business to be brought before the alcohol board if five residents within a half-mile sign complaints against it, appears to be ripe for abuse, Ellestad said.
“What if you wanted to buy property and to get rid of a (bar)?” he said. “This strikes me as sort of a backdoor approach to make it easier to shut down businesses.”