Government & Politics
 

City council to drop controversial proposal for surveillance cameras at businesses that sell booze

The New Orleans City Council is expected to drop a controversial proposal that would have required every business with a liquor license to install security cameras linked to a government monitoring center.

City Councilwoman Stacy Head, who sponsored the ordinance at Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s request, will withdraw it and introduce a proposed ordinance that, she said, will only change which city department issues liquor licenses.

“I don’t believe that there was an appetite for it to pass in this council, particularly with the concerns people expressed with the surveillance and some of the more controversial language in this ordinance,” Head said in a phone interview Tuesday.

Her replacement bill would move liquor licenses from the Finance Department to the Department of Safety and Permits, which issues other licenses and permits through the city’s OneStop program.

However, bars that get in trouble for violating the city’s liquor laws may still have to install cameras.

On Tuesday, the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, which deals with those cases, signed consent decrees with two bars requiring installation of cameras “providing a live feed to the city’s Real Time Crime Center.”

That’s the city’s name for its new video monitoring center, which collects video feeds from cameras all over the city.

The affected bars are Chuck’s Sports Bar in the Central Business District and the Hangover Bar in the Seventh Ward.

“It does seem somewhat like an end-run around” the passage of a law, said Ethan Ellestad, director of the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans, which has campaigned against the surveillance ordinance.

“They can still put in a proviso that anyone who goes before the ABO board has to be part of that network,” he said.

In agreements reached last year, the city required two other bars to install cameras connected to the video monitoring center. The Alcoholic Beverage Control Board provided them to The Lens on Wednesday morning.

The original ordinance grew out of Landrieu’s 2017 public safety plan, which came after a high-profile shooting on Bourbon Street over the 2017 Thanksgiving weekend. The plan called for cameras outside every business licensed to sell alcohol, including bars, restaurants and corner stores.

It drew criticism from civil rights advocates, including the ACLU of Louisiana, who said the cameras would infringe on citizens’ privacy rights without reducing crime.

The Office of the Independent Police Monitor also expressed skepticism. Acting Police Monitor Ursula Price warned in a November letter that, based on other large-scale surveillance programs in other cities, the one in New Orleans could easily lead to abuses, including improper focus on women’s bodies and disproportionate surveillance of black residents.

Price recommended that the city develop policies to prevent abuses and hold a series of public meetings on the program before requiring any cameras to be installed.

“It shouldn’t have ever gotten this far. It shows there should have been public input from the beginning,” Ellestad said. “The next step is, how do we make sure this kind of thing doesn’t happen again.”

In a statement on Tuesday, Landrieu spokesman Craig Belden said the mayor requested the measure be withdrawn and believes the matter should be moved to the next council and mayoral administration, which will take office in May.

“The Landrieu administration has moved aggressively to tackle violent crime in our neighborhoods. A key part of this effort has been providing the tools and resources law enforcement needs to be more effective,” Belden wrote.

“The proposed ordinance that expands the number of cameras outside of ABO’s [Alcohol Beverage Outlets] will require more discussion and careful consideration by the next Council and Administration.”

Landrieu had previously dismissed privacy concerns, saying at the opening of the city’s video monitoring center in November, “If you’re in public, you don’t have that expectation of privacy.”

This story was updated after publication to include background and reaction, and to note that the city required two more bars to install cameras last year. (March 20 and 21, 2018).

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About Charles Maldonado

Charles Maldonado covers the city of New Orleans and other local government bodies. He previously worked for Gambit, New Orleans’ alternative newsweekly, where he covered city hall, criminal justice and public health. Before moving to New Orleans, he covered state and local government for weekly papers in Nashville and Knoxville, Tenn.