New Orleans Police Department cameras are recording the activity on Bourbon Street and temporary barricades have been erected nearby, part of a security roll-out for Carnival that also presages some elements of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s proposed long-term security plan for the city.
But even as the cameras are rolling, Councilman Jason Williams is raising concern about whether the increased surveillance could be turned against immigrants and minority communities by President Donald Trump’s administration as it cracks down on people in the country illegally and makes gestures toward deeper federal involvement in local crime issues.
“How will I know if (the video) is being shared with immigration agents or enforcement officers?” Williams asked. “Who knows how these cameras could be used?”
The security plan also is facing new criticism from bar owners and supporters, who said in a letter to the City Council that they worry that the presence of hundreds of cameras, some of which the bars would be required to install, would burden their businesses.
Some critics also say a proposal to make bars keep their doors shut after 3 a.m. might have more to do with disputes over noise than with cutting crime.
“While crime and public safety are very real and pressing concerns, we must be careful,” according to the letter. “Throughout history, well-meaning but ultimately misguided overreactions to these issues have been used to unnecessarily curtail personal freedoms.”
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The installation of hundreds of cameras in 20 neighborhoods around the city is one of the cornerstones of Landrieu’s security plan, which was formulated in the wake of terrorist attacks in Europe and a shooting on Bourbon Street on Thanksgiving weekend.
The proposal, which would cost an estimated $36 million upfront and $3.8 million a year, also calls for turning most of Bourbon Street into a pedestrian mall and making other changes aimed at curbing crime.
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About 30 cameras were temporarily installed “near where special events are occurring” last week, and barricades that can be raised to block vehicles were installed on some streets near Bourbon, though those measures are not part of the permanent security plan, Landrieu spokesman Tyronne Walker said.
The security features “are being rolled out over time” and the city will “recalibrate” after Mardi Gras, Landrieu said Monday.
The additional French Quarter cameras had been previously purchased by the Police Department for other purposes, Walker said, noting that the department has set up cameras before during Carnival and other major events.
The cameras are being monitored by officials at the NOPD and City Hall, Walker said, though he said “security concerns” prevented him from going into details about that monitoring.
Some elements of the security plan were first proposed before Trump took office and before the breadth of his administration’s attempt to crack down on illegal immigration was clear, Williams said.
New guidance released by the administration Tuesday calls for a massive increase in the scale and speed of deportations and the creation of new detention centers. And, most concerning to Williams, the rules could mean local police departments would be enlisted in immigration enforcement, something New Orleans has resisted.
“I don’t know that we can ensure our increased surveillance efforts will not put communities of color and more specifically immigrant communities in more peril,” Williams said. “We need to ask ourselves very serious questions” about how the cameras could be used.
Even if the city intends not to be part of the Trump administration's efforts, Williams said, local officials have to be prepared if federal officials demand access to the video footage or if new officials with different ideas are elected.
“I think we have to ask certain questions given that our landscape and our political climate has changed so much,” Williams said. “I think it's wise to be prudent about what we are creating that could outlive us all.”
Asked about Williams’ concerns, Walker said, “We know he understands the mayor’s commitment to making sure that we protect the citizens and residents here in the city. The councilman understands and I know takes the mayor at his word that NOPD will not be a federal deportation force.”
The administration would likely be able to install cameras and set up a central hub to monitor them without council approval because they would be paid for with $23 million in funding the security plan is expected to receive from the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.
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Meanwhile, 20 bar owners and others associated with bars — most of them outside the French Quarter — came out against the plan in their letter to the City Council. The signers included the founder of Tales of the Cocktail, the president of the Bartenders Guild and the owners of numerous bars including Cure and Latitude 29.
Their top issues include proposed rules that would require all bars to close their doors at 3 a.m., though they could still operate and patrons could enter and leave, and requirements that bars install cameras that would tie into the city’s network, said Cole Newton, owner of Twelve Mile Limit and the lead signatory on the letter.
He said those proposals seem to be less about reducing crime than about providing a roundabout way to enforce other policies, such as noise ordinances, that have been tried in the past, he said, noting an analysis by The New Orleans Advocate showing crime peaks well before 3 a.m.
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“They’re using the anti-crime packaging to do quality-of-life changes and noise ordinances and things they’ve tried to do under their own name and haven’t been able to do because they’re broadly unpopular,” Newton said. “We can have a reasonable debate about noise and quality-of-life concerns, but trying to put the spin of crime on it seems disingenuous.”
The proposals could also place a financial burden on businesses that would need to buy and maintain equipment, he said.
Walker said the administration “will continue to work with businesses throughout the city to address any concerns. ... However, public safety is our top priority, and we are steadfast in our commitment to use all available tools and resources to ensure safety of New Orleanians and visitors.”