Behind a wall of stone-faced police officers gripping heavy black rifles, a fleet of white police SUVs and firetrucks sit idly, silently flashing blue and red lights inside an otherwise-empty exhibition hall of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. Flanking either side of a podium, facing a small cluster of reporters and TV cameras, are two dome-shaped cameras atop chrome obelisks. Signs mounted on them read "MAJOR RESULTS IN PUBLIC SAFETY."
A year after Mayor Mitch Landrieu and city officials announced a sweeping $40 million public safety plan — a massive project partnering with Gov. John Bel Edwards and the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau — Landrieu sped through a checklist of his administration's crime agenda and its progress during his nearly eight years in office.
The plan equips the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) with an arsenal of new technology, from an electronic crime-reporting system for non-emergency calls to take-home cars and weapon-sniffing K9 units.
But central to the city's plan is an expansive surveillance network, starting with 80 cameras installed in "hot spots" determined by the city, with another 250 planned in the coming months — all streamed into the recently opened Real Time Crime Monitoring Center, a screen-filled nucleus on the edge of the French Quarter, manned 24 hours a day.
That network could expand greatly with the passage of a proposed city ordinance — introduced by Councilwoman-at-Large Stacy Head and backed by Landrieu — that would mandate a camera outside every business in the city that sells alcohol, creating an unprecedented surveillance system in a city with one of the highest rates of bars per capita.
At the request of the Landrieu administration, the New Orleans City Council deferred a vote on the measure last week, but the ordinance could return for a vote later this month.
The city also plans to expand its SafeCam NOLA program, which allows residents to register their security cameras with the NOPD. Participants in the program soon will have the option to feed camera images into the Real Time Crime Monitoring Center, which is primed to become the largest citywide surveillance operation in the U.S. According to the ordinance, all that information could be shared with NOPD, the Louisiana State Police and other "law enforcement partners" — including a broad field of federal agencies.
"We've already seen how this new investment has paid dividends to our law enforcement with instantaneous access to critical information, which has helped solve crimes faster and enhanced public safety across the city," Landrieu said at the Jan. 4 press conference.
Police oversight groups, civil rights attorneys, community organizations and bar and restaurant owners have a different take. They fear that kind of camera network will put residents under a permanent microscope and set a dangerous precedent for law enforcement's role in policing everyday life.
"When you go on Bourbon Street, everything you do will be seen," Landrieu said in January 2017. "Do I need to let that sink in?" At the opening of the Real Time Crime Monitoring Center in November 2017, Landrieu said, "If you're in public, you don't have that expectation of privacy" and "people should conduct themselves accordingly."
"Our first priority is public safety," Landrieu said Jan. 4, "and in public spaces and on public streets, people in the city of New Orleans can expect that what they do will be seen."
- Alex Woodward
The future of that camera plan begins with one sentence on page 15, tucked inside a 22-page proposed city ordinance. Under a section titled "Participation in Community Security Systems," all alcohol beverage outlets (ABOs) "shall install City approved video security systems outside their premises that archive video footage for a period of not less than 14 days to a cloud based platform integrated with the City's system."
That's as specific as it gets. Details about how businesses participate in the camera program — how much cameras will cost, whether businesses will have to pay fees to maintain the city's cloud-based storage, and which companies will be awarded city contracts for cameras and storage — haven't been made available.
The rest of the ordinance covers how ABOs are permitted, consolidating the application process into the city's One Stop Shop for businesses and individuals seeking permits and licenses. Head introduced the ordinance at the Landrieu administration's request in December, but Head hasn't committed to the language in it.
Head's policy advisor Katie Baudouin told Gambit that Head is "looking forward to hearing more from the administration about how those sections of the ordinance fit in with the overall strategy to reduce crime in New Orleans.
"In the meantime, [Head's] more concerned about government efficiency and transparency," Baudouin said.
The plan's opponents say city officials have been less than transparent in coming up with a plan that could affect every bar and restaurant in town; City Hall released the ordinance during a holiday season without any public hearings nearly a year after Landrieu announced his public safety plan.
"It shows to me a level of disrespect to the people of the city, the residents of the city," says Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MaCCNO) Executive Director Ethan Ellestad. "If that's a way you're treating something with massive consequences, particularly for communities of color, immigrants — it's saying, 'Your concerns are not relevant.'"
The city purchased its new license plate readers — 22 currently are installed and 80 more are expected in the coming months — from Kenner-based LA Tech Source for roughly $120,000, according to contracts published by the city.
All those camera feeds — and the dozens already installed throughout the city — will pipe into the $4 million Real Time Crime Monitoring Center on North Rampart Street, where city employees watch the live feeds. Storage of that data, how it can be accessed and under what circumstances, also hasn't been discussed by officials.
"The thing that concerns me the most — nothing in this process has been transparent," says Ursula Price, deputy police monitor at the office of the New Orleans Independent Police Monitor.
In November, Price sent a letter to members of the New Orleans City Council outlining the monitor's concerns with the plan, alleging a lack of oversight, a potential for abuse or misuse and whether a surveillance network could do more harm than good to the people captured on tape.
"We've gotten no response at all," Price says. "As an oversight agency it mystifies me why the city would build such a new, complex system without even a conversation with the oversight body for NOPD."
Circle Bar and Snake and Jake's Christmas Club Lounge owner Dave Clements already has surveillance cameras installed at Snake and Jake's. He says he put them there so he'd have something to hand over to NOPD in the event a crime is committed. He isn't convinced the city's plan to watch the outside of his bars will combat crime any more than his cameras do now.
"You might have a nice video of the crime, but I already have that with my surveillance cameras," he says. "The whole 'Big Brother' aspect is very disturbing. The fact I would have to pay ... would obviously be a financial burden. An undisclosed monthly upkeep payment would also not be good. I would like that money to be better spent. I'd rather have them spend that on more police patrolling, or put it into something more culturally or socially beneficial."
T. Cole Newton, who runs Mid-City's Twelve Mile Limit (which also uses cameras), posted an informal petition to gauge opposition to the plan in the days after its release. Most of the people who responded were in the service industry, "but there were also doctors, teachers, lawyers, contractors, all sorts of people who don't want to be surveilled," he says. "People of all walks of life are equally opposed."
The debate over the camera plan has underlined the fraught, frequently strained relationship between police and citizens, particularly among people of color and immigrant communities. In its security plan, New Orleans officials and the city's Office of Homeland Security have responded not only with a larger-scale surveillance plan but also with road-blocking bollards on Bourbon Street and a beefed-up armory resembling military-issued gear. At several points throughout his January press conference, Landrieu mentioned the city needing to fortify itself against terrorist threats.
"The thing that has changed dramatically in the world and in this country recently have been the terrorist attacks or the lone shooters or those kind of things that put not only hundreds of thousands of people in harm's way," he said. "The more tools law enforcement officers have to protect themselves and everybody else the better."
Landrieu says events in Ferguson, Missouri following the police killing of Michael Brown and the 2016 killings of police officers in Dallas, Texas and Baton Rouge influenced the city's decision to invest in equipment for police to "meet power with power."
"You have to continue to head in that direction," Landrieu said. "When you found something that works, you have to continue to invest in it and do more of it."
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Louisiana disagrees, saying the camera plan is "government surveillance on steroids" and poses a constitutional threat to residents without any evidence that it works to prevent or "effectively reduce" crime. In a letter to the City Council, Price points to several studies arguing that more surveillance doesn't necessarily mean less crime.
"This kind of pervasive government surveillance system has been shown to be both ineffective and susceptible to abuse, raising serious constitutional concerns for privacy and undermining trust with the community," said ACLU of Louisiana interim executive director Jane Johnson.
In his review of an early glimpse of the plan, criminologist Jeff Asher notes that live monitoring of camera streams is often a "fruitless task" without active patrols. Price says NOPD does not have the ability to simultaneously monitor in real time and respond in real time. "Effectively, then all you can possibly get is after-the-fact evidence to get a conviction," she says. "You cannot prevent harm to people this way."
In MaCCNO's review of similar camera plans in the 50 largest cities in the U.S., the group found that no other city requires real-time monitoring. Long Beach, California, however, mandates businesses with liquor licenses in its Downtown Dining and Entertainment District retain camera footage for 30 days and make those recordings and real-time streams accessible over the internet — but not into a city-owned monitoring station.
In Detroit, Mayor Mike Duggan's administration intends to propose a plan that mandates businesses that stay open past 10 p.m. feed their surveillance cameras into Project Green Light, the Detroit Police Department's real-time crime monitoring system. That plan could put roughly 4,000 cameras under the city's watch.
"It's one thing for a bar, an ABO, to have private ownership of those cameras, and it's another thing to have government or federal oversight for those same cameras, or to own those cameras and then expect a private entity to continuously monitor that," says MaCCNO Community Engagement Coordinator Renard Bridgewater.
A statement from an undocumented member of the immigrant advocacy group Congress of Day Laborers says the surveillance plan is likely to make immigrant communities feel less safe if federal immigration authorities have access to footage from places ranging from where they work to where they worship.
"We don't know where this information will be going and with what sources it will be shared," the statement reads. "This camera system is intrusive, wasteful, and worrying in its own right, but it is even more irresponsible to approve this camera system without public clarity about who will have access to this information."
"You're creating a system that gives FBI and [the Department of Homeland Security] access to their image, where they come and go throughout the city — that's different than an expectation of privacy," Ellestad says. "That's an expectation of safety. What this mayoral administration needs to do is protect the safety of all its citizens from, not just crime but from agencies and other systems that we know are looking to actively cause harm."
The ordinance also takes a strict approach to how city agencies penalize ABOs that have received complaints from the community, which the MaCCNO also argues could threaten cultural spaces that increasingly are squeezed out by new developments.
Under the rules of the ordinance, a business that receives five or more written complaints — submitted individually or in petitions — from people living within a half-mile radius of the business would define the business as a "nuisance," subject to significant penalties from city agencies, or closure. (The current standard is 300 feet.)
"New Orleans builds its back on, reputation on, selling the culture," Ellestad says. "Even cynically, you should be trying to protect these places. Even if you're making money off the backs of people who do this, you should be trying to protect these places."
While the New Orleans City Council chambers inside City Hall are renovated, full City Council meetings in the first several months of 2018 will be held inside the Orleans Parish School Board building in Algiers — a 15-minute drive from City Hall, over the Crescent City Connection bridge. Committee meetings also are being moved to other offices in and around City Hall. Last week, as opponents prepared to voice their opposition and coordinated carpools and rides to the West Bank, Head announced the City Council planned to defer voting on the ordinance by a committee hearing on Jan. 10 and the full City Council on Jan. 11.
On Jan. 9, the state's powerful restaurant lobby, the Louisiana Restaurant Association (LRA), met with members of the Landrieu administration to discuss concerns with the ordinance. In a memo obtained by NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune, the LRA opposed the ABO complaint process and movement of financial records from the Department of Finance to Safety and Permits. It also opposed the ordinance giving emergency suspension abilities to the mayor's office, chief of police or ABO board chairman in the event the business "endangers the health, safety and welfare of the community."
In a Jan. 10 memo obtained by Gambit, LRA President and CEO Stan Harris said the group had a "productive meeting" with the Landrieu administration. "Most of the items that were of the most concern to us were resolved reasonably," Harris said.
The LRA declined to discuss those concerns with Gambit or how they were addressed by the Landrieu administration.
"We have addressed those concerns directly with the administration who were receptive to working with us to address them," LRA Vice President of Communications Wendy Waren told Gambit. "We appreciate their willingness to meet with us. We will wait for them to share the proposed amendments before commenting further."
After members of the City Council's Governmental Affairs Committee agreed to defer a vote on the ordinance at its Jan. 10 meeting, District A City Councilwoman Susan Guidry said the move will "give us some more time to work with the community."
"I know a lot of people were planning to come today or listen today," she said. "I'm more than certain the community wants there to be the best public safety possibilities for our city as there can be. ... What we're going to do is continue working very quickly to get to a resolution on that ordinance that will be acceptable to most people in the community as well as the administration."
Council members haven't taken a formal position on the first draft. Council President Jason Williams says he has "concerns"; other council members appear to be waiting for debate before making a decision.
While City Hall takes another look at the plan, its critics hope the City Council and mayor's office are listening.
"I'm happy they seem to be listening and taking those concerns seriously," says Newton, the Twelve Mile Limit owner. "One of the biggest concerns about it was how fast they were trying to move it. ... Public opinion seems to be overwhelmingly against this. Giving it a little bit more time seems to help our case. It gives people more time to voice those concerns."