A Bourbon Street club proclaims itself barely legal, but other bars and strip joints cross the line. Credit: William Khan

New Orleans is proudly a 24/7 drinking town, but laws and principles of good neighborliness should be followed not just in broad daylight but also at night—when much of City Hall is closed.

The City Council is in the process of considering technological, regulatory, and practical tools to modernize the enforcement process for the benefit and accountability of alcohol sellers and neighbors alike.

A failed effort last year to require surveillance cameras in every alcohol outlet has been abandoned. Instead, exterior cameras would be among remedial sanctions mandated at bars found to be in violation of city codes and licensing requirements.

In addition, the ordinance under review would make it easier for neighbors and others impacted by noise, crime, litter, unlawful business activities, and parking issues associated with liquor outlets to submit formal complaints.

Lastly, the ordinance would tighten and professionalize loose alcohol licensing, permitting, and renewal procedures that have been abused by tax scofflaws, repeat violators, sidewalk peddlers, vendors who maintain shoddy records, absentee managers/owners scheming to escape responsibility, and applicants trying to obtain liquor licenses under false pretenses.

These proposed reforms embody a simple concept: that the city and the public need better and smarter tools to make bad actors, including nuisance bars, bear some of the burden in documenting, monitoring, and compelling compliance with alcohol rules and regulations. The reforms were first embodied in proposed legislation called Ordinance 32,523. After public input, the ordinance has been withdrawn and will be resubmitted to the council with amendments in the near future, according to a spokesperson for Councilmember Kristin Gisleson Palmer, co-author of the ordinance with Councilmember Cyndi Nguyen.

Absent such an ordinance, much of the burden currently falls on private investigators, civic groups, ordinary citizens, residents, and neighbors; sometimes the only recourses for harmed neighbors and concerned citizens are pleas to state authorities or the courts. Given money and manpower constraints, the city should be putting technology into service and systems into place to ensure accountability at the expense of problematical businesses.

Alcohol regulation in New Orleans
Number of Alcohol beverage outlets (ABO’s) in Louisiana18,000+
Number of ABO’s in Orleans Parish1,528
Number of ABO’s in the French Quarter350+
Number of enforcement agents in Louisiana’s Alcohol and Tobacco Control Office17 (statewide—including but not limited to ATC agents covering Orleans Parish)
Number of NOPD officers1,189 (for year-end 2017)
NOPD average response time for nonemergencies97 minutes
Orleans Parish population (as of July 2017)393,292
Number of service calls, complaints, and documented violations before the alcohol license for Last Call, a French Quarter bar less than 2 blocks from the NOPD’s 8th District Station, was revoked and shut down by state authorities400+, including 42 counts of improper conduct related to criminal activities

The reform effort deserves public support, in particular for the provision that would mandate exterior cameras for alcohol beverage outlets found to be in violation of the law. Cameras would not be required inside such establishments and there would be no requirement that the exterior cameras be linked to the city’s Real-time Crime Center, according to Palmer’s office.

If the condition of our city’s infrastructure, such as roads and sewage lines, is not enough evidence of the city’s resource constraints, the NOPD’s manpower shortage starkly illustrates a lack of personnel to handle the criminal activities that are often associated with nuisance bars, let alone quality of life issues. The commissioner of Louisiana’s Alcohol and Tobacco Control Office has stated that the department has just 17 agents to monitor the more than 18,000 venues that serve alcohol statewide.

Orleans Parish has 1,528 establishments with active alcohol-beverage licenses. The French Quarter alone—two-thirds of a square mile and just 12 blocks wide—has more than 350. In the absence of cameras and accountability systems applied to operators with a history of violations, do voters want to create and fund a vast new municipal agency to monitor, inspect, and regulate alcohol beverage outlets 24 hours a day, seven days a week?

The bars, liquor stores and venues that serve alcoholic drinks are concentrated in wealthier areas of the city, so a 24/7 municipal alcohol enforcement office would likely draw even more public resources away from underserved areas like Algiers, Hollygrove, and New Orleans East.

The ordinance, put forward by Councilmembers Nguyen and Palmer, offers proactive options that are smarter and more efficient.

In my view, interior cameras should also be considered for the dimly lit areas and concealed rooms where many violations occur.

Incorporating safeguards for neighbors into the enforcement and oversight process can make it easier for responsible liquor applicants to gain approval. Often City Council members have to devote significant time to drafting provisos, good-neighbor agreements, and conditions for a newly sought permit—as if they didn’t have enough to do handling unrelated quality-of-life challenges like potholes, blight, erroneous water bills, taxes, and crime.

Today’s back-and-forth permit-approval process—partly the result of neighborhood worries about insufficient enforcement personnel and little accountability for nuisance alcohol outlets—can generate substantial legal, lobbying, and consultant expenses. That’s a hardship for legitimate bar businesses as well as for neighbors who want to make sure these outlets follow the law.

The inflexible rules, procedural delays, and limited remedial options currently available to the city’s Alcohol Beverage Control Board mean that nuisance bars clinging to liquor permits can receive extended deferrals. That’s burdensome for complainants, witnesses, city staff, lawful bars, and neighbors. While a nuisance bar’s case is deferred, the establishment usually can continue selling alcohol, which is supposed to be a privilege.

Presently, the process for filing and adjudicating a complaint against an alcohol beverage outlet is not simple. First, a complainant must submit a petition backed by sworn affidavits. Secondly, both complainants and defendant bar owners usually have to leave their jobs, families, and other obligations to attend government meetings in the middle of the workday, monitor the proceedings, and provide testimony.

Needless to say, the testimony of neighbors, bar owners, and staff can be biased or distorted. The proposed law now under review would retain the affidavit requirement for complainants but offer a cost-effective, objective, and time-saving technological solution for meeting the burden of proof: cameras.

In New Orleans, cameras are already everywhere—in public parks, libraries, bus stops, recreation facilities, street corners, casinos, and even taxicabs. And their benefit to law enforcement is striking.  Cameras have improved the percentage of crimes that are solved (especially downtown), saved precious time for police, and even caught illegal dumping in underserved areas of the city, such as New Orleans East.

There are strong arguments in favor of requiring outdoor cameras for bars with a history of violations. In my view, interior cameras should also be considered for the dimly lit areas and concealed rooms where many violations occur. Some alcohol beverage outlets—such as strip clubs (several of which are licensed as bars)—promote and market concealed areas such as “VIP rooms,” private areas, booths, and stalls.

These back rooms and hidden spaces can be dangerous for police officers, city inspectors, and alcohol control officials. In other cities, the most effective laws and enforceable regulations for these outlets are designed to enable officers and regulators to view all of an establishment’s customer areas from a common vantage point during a quick visit. For police officers, state Alcohol and Tobacco Control agents, and city inspectors, interior cameras can reduce unknown variables and de-escalate the police response, which improves safety for law enforcement, bar staff, and customers.

Most alcohol beverage outlets, including bars and nightclubs, do not want concealed or secretive public areas. To pique the interest of onlookers and to draw more people in, they want packed dance floors, crowded pool tables, and rows of customers at the counter, watching a game and keeping bartenders busy.

However, some alcohol beverage outlets have trained their employees to give vague, ambiguous answers to customers and law enforcement about what services and activities are offered in private areas hidden from public view. These same alcohol beverage outlets also know that undercover detectives are not authorized to spend the fees—sometimes thousands of dollars—that get them into the VIP areas where prostitution and drug abuse typically occur.

From drive-thru daiquiri outlets to alcohol beverages consumed on the street, New Orleans has famously lax liquor laws. Credit: William Khan

A year-long investigation by The Times-Picayune in 2017 documented several violations at 10 of the 13 strip clubs operating in the French Quarter at that time. Studies have shown that the most intense alcohol beverage outlets, including strip clubs, are magnets for crime: both inside and outside. With entertainers encouraged to go with customers into closed rooms behind closed doors, they attract easy marks who will not report crime because they don’t want to admit where they’ve been or because they are under the influence of alcohol/drugs. The result is that both inside and outside the club there are a lot of ingredients for a regional crime node.

Tearing into centuries-old buildings, one French Quarter strip club brazenly cut through the wall of a neighboring bar to create private rooms where dancers and customers could meet. Certainly, the owner of the strip club knew or should have known of the private rooms carved into a neighboring building for his benefit, but the owner’s lawyer apparently tried to defend his client by blaming dancers—who probably did not drill holes, demolish walls, or move furniture into the adjacent building. The strip club owner’s lawyer suggested that dancers should be required to have responsible vendor’s licenses in order to supposedly address the problems and externalities posed by strip clubs.

Shifting blame, sacrificing subordinates, and devising new schemes are common tactics of nuisance bar owners who usually revert to prohibited activities, and this pits the police, regulators, and neighbors against staffers caught in the middle.

Mandated cameras for repeat offenders can protect workers as well as make irresponsible owners ultimately accountable. If it takes mandated cameras to ensure that alcohol vendors do not break the law and imperil the livelihoods and safety of their staff, this option is preferable to reactive and delayed alcohol regulation which embitters neighbors, pressures law enforcement, and encourages repeat offenses.

In the past, these repeat offenses at alcohol venues have included blocking fire exits and disregarding orders from the fire marshal, which endangers customers, staff, neighboring buildings, and the larger public—not just nearby residents.

Some critics of the proposed alcohol ordinance portray it as anti-nightlife, the usual knee-jerk reaction to even modest changes in New Orleans’ permissive liquor laws. Currently, the scales are tipped in favor of the most troublesome alcohol beverage outlets. Even so-called “minor” violations like litter abatement and parking overflow can have significant impacts on neighbors’ quality of life. Documenting these violations is fraught with risk.

The proposed law offers significant procedural and substantive benefits to current and future alcohol sellers, but alcohol outlets must understand that liquor licenses are a privilege—not a right.

If neighbors bring a camera to visibly record or take pictures of an establishment’s violations, they risk intimidation, confrontation, or retaliation. If neighbors call the police late at night, officers may not arrive until the establishment has closed and the crowds are gone. Neighbors can be afraid to reveal their addresses, share complaints, or speak publicly—even at government meetings and forums.

Apart from rudimentary tools—such as video footage, still photographs, and affidavits—to document violations at nuisance bars, neighbors have to resort to costly options like hiring private investigators. Private citizens should not have to do the job of the city itself by desperately documenting the most egregious legal violations, hiring private investigators to serve as city inspectors, and unevenly making nuisance bars face consequences for violations.

Beyond providing a technological option to address visible and tangible quality-of-life issues like excessive litter and disorderly conduct, the proposed ordinance currently being amended would tighten licensing standards for alcohol permit holders, establish permit procedures for selling alcohol on sidewalks, and allow city investigators to audit the sales and records of alcohol vendors.

Importantly, staff at the city’s Department of Finance, the Department of Safety and Permits, and other agencies could not be hindered by permit holders from conducting an inspection, audit, investigation, or a reasonable request for invoices of the previous six months.

Not all violations occur by dark of night, and they can be much more subversive than illegally selling alcohol in public sight on streets or sidewalks despite police citations. In many instances, convicted felons have used intermediaries—such as shell companies or sham managers/owners—to maintain liquor licenses, and neighbors have been afraid to complain about bars known to have links to convicted felons.

In other instances, unscrupulous booze peddlers disavow responsibility for the unlawful actions of their employees only when they are caught, but they do not declare and return substantial profits from past illicit activities that went undetected or unpunished. Underreporting of sales and taxes by some venues—including one establishment that did not pay taxes for months and lacked a liquor license for three years—means that other taxpayers have to shoulder the burden for funding city services such as firefighters and police. Weak enforcement and inadequate oversight put law-abiding, well-run, and tax-paying alcohol beverage outlets at a competitive disadvantage compared to nuisance bars.

Apart from hiring thousands of new city inspectors or redeploying NOPD officers, I can’t think of an alternative to the technological, regulatory, and practical tools offered by Nguyen and Palmer except to continue allowing nuisance bars to self-regulate and monitor themselves, which some venues are ardently and perhaps underhandedly clamoring for.

Some alcohol vendors, including strip clubs, have offered their contractors “comped house fees” and “free rent” to pack public meetings and to muzzle opposing voices instead of addressing the findings, abuses, and risk factors that led to their establishments’ being cited for unlawful activity in the first place.  The lack of concern, introspection, or soul-searching by some alcohol outlets suggests that they are undeterred by the city’s—and the public’s—limited options and weak mechanisms to hold them accountable.

The city of New Orleans bends over backwards to encourage and support a vibrant nightlife, with drive-thru daiquiri outlets, outdoor consumption of alcohol, and no mandatory closing times. Video poker, a cash cow, is invited into liquor outlets with open arms. The proposed law offers significant procedural and substantive benefits to current and future alcohol sellers, but alcohol outlets must understand that liquor licenses are a privilege—not a right.

Licensees are responsible for policing the activities in their own establishments. Licensees who show that they are incapable of discharging this responsibility should not enjoy the privilege or the profits that might flow from the liquor business. If nuisance bars are not ultimately held accountable, they will repeatedly break the law, profit from illegal activities, blame others, harm quality of life, and drain the city’s enforcement resources.

William Khan is a resident of the French Quarter. 

The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.