One of New Orleans' city-owned surveillance cameras on the corner of Esplanade Ave. and Decatur St. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The New Orleans City Council gave unanimous approval on Thursday to a plan to add license plate readers and more than triple the number of surveillance cameras in the French Quarter, which is already one of the most surveilled parts of the city.

The proposal comes from the French Quarter Management District (FQMD), a public agency tasked with “enhancing public safety and sanitation” in the historic district. The agency manages a dedicated revenue source from a quarter cent sales tax within the French Quarter, but it has to get budget approval from the City Council before it can spend it.

On Thursday, the council approved a request from FQMD to increase its budget by $700,000, a roughly 30 percent increase, due to higher-than-expected sales tax collections. Most of that will go toward increasing surveillance in the neighborhood. 

The plan will place license plate readers at every entry point to the French Quarter, and will create camera coverage on nearly every square block of the neighborhood, with feeds going to the city’s surveillance hub, called the Real Time Crime Center.

The plan includes $37,500 to rent 20 license plate readers for a year, $420,000 to buy 70 new cameras and $70,000 for data plans to connect those cameras to the Real Time Crime Center. The plan also includes $195,000 for new streetlights and $50,000 for homeless case managers.

The executive director of the FQMD, Karley Frankic, previously told the council that the $700,000 in spending priorities were largely developed based on requests from the NOPD. 

The French Quarter already has roughly 30 city-owned cameras, according to an online map maintained by the city. The Real Time Crime Center has access to additional camera feeds through the Safecam Platinum program, which allows residents and businesses to give the city access to their private camera feeds. The city doesn’t maintain a map of Safecam Platinum cameras, so it’s not clear exactly how many are already in the neighborhood.

Almost all of the 30 city-owned cameras currently in the French Quarter are installed along Bourbon Street. The new plan proposes installing 70 new cameras “covering each block on Decatur, Chartres, Royal, Dauphine, Burgundy, N. Rampart.” 

“They are real time, so we are able to have folks in the Real Time Crime Center monitoring those cameras and identify areas of suspicious activity,” Frankic told council members at a July meeting.

When the city’s camera network was first introduced in 2017, officials told the public it was a “complaint-based” system — meaning the city would check footage after a crime was reported to gather evidence, rather than monitor the feeds in real time. But it has become increasingly clear that isn’t entirely true. 

Before voting on Thursday, Councilman JP Morrell said he wanted to address a video that was recently posted on social media by the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MACCNO), an organization that opposed the new surveillance plan. 

The video shows a uniformed man telling the camera that people will be cited by the NOPD if they put up barricades on the Royal Street pedestrian mall.

“I’ve been told by NOPD, sir, that if they see anyone putting this back up on the crime cameras, they will cite,” the man said. 

The man is Mathew Pincus, who heads up the Royal Street Patrol, a supplemental police force managed by FQMD. As The Lens reported last year, MACCNO had raised concerns about the Royal Street Patrol and its mission to deter “aggressive panhandling, inebriants, and illegal sales.”

“Our intent, if we choose to put cameras in the french quarter, is not to surveil culture bearers and musicians,” Morrell said. “It is to provide additional resources to NOPD to promote public safety. … If I ever get a report that these cameras are being used to harass street performers, I’ll be the first one to shut them down.”

Ethan Ellestad, executive director of MACCNO, was at Thursday’s meeting and said that the potential use of these cameras to crack down on cultural activity was a concern whether or not it was the intent of the council.

“One of our concerns are how cameras and surveillance can be used to suppress cultural activity, whether or not it is the policy,” he said.

Another public commenter, resident Sage Michael, said he didn’t agree with resources being focused on the French Quarter rather than the city at large. 

“You’re all telling us we don’t matter on the other end of the city,” he said. “I really don’t like this cherry picking.”

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...