NOPD and ATC defend strip club raids, citing prostitution, drug sales

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At a press conference Monday morning, New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) and Office of Alcohol & Tobacco Control (ATC) officials defended recent raids of eight Bourbon Street gentlemen's clubs, calling them the "first step, but certainly not the last" in an ongoing effort to fight human trafficking in New Orleans.

However, official accounts of the investigation seemed to muddle human trafficking with the variety of violations uncovered in the clubs, which range in seriousness.

Both Superintendent of Police Michael S. Harrison and ATC Commissioner Juana Marine-Lombard portrayed the raids as both part of a human trafficking initiative and an effort to curtail criminal activity they say the clubs house.

"[We want] to make sure that ... the fun, that the partying on Bourbon Street continues, but that it is done without the criminal aspect, that it is done without females being used to foster criminal activity," Marine-Lombard said. "We have no issues with the dancers. ... Anyone that is legally dancing in a club that is holding itself out and making the effort to avoid being used with the criminal activity has no problem with the ATC."

But officials at the conference struggled to cast the raids as victory against human trafficking, rather than a general crackdown on vice. No human trafficking arrests have been made in this operation at this time, though the investigation is ongoing.
The complete list of violations, which was released at the conference at NOPD's Broad Street headquarters, includes more than 30 instances of solicitation for prostitution, attempted sales of marijuana and cocaine and "lewd acts," including dancers baring their nipples, simulating sex acts or touching or fondling the genitals of the undercover agents who conducted the investigations leading up to the raids.

Officials also did not fully address concerns about job loss among workers at raided clubs, many of which have been closed for days in the wake of the raids. According to Marine-Lombard, no club was ordered closed by ATC or NOPD investigators — rather, suspensions of liquor and tobacco licenses were served, and some clubs voluntarily chose to shutter in response.

Hearings about the clubs' individual suspensions are set for Feb. 1 and Feb. 6. Past violations may play into the clubs' ability to bring their licenses into good standing, Marine-Lombard said — a factor which creates a higher degree of uncertainty for dancers, bartenders, hosts and other employees who are anxious to return to work.

Though Harrison was careful to stress that the target of the investigation was "pimps and clubs," he said individual charges for individuals who solicited prostitution are forthcoming. This may foreshadow legal difficulties for some of the dancers at raided clubs, many of whom are identified by stage name in the notices of suspension served to venues by the ATC. 

Officials also pushed back on questions about the timing of the raids, which occurred just before the peak of the busy (and generally profitable) Carnival season. "We take action when people commit crimes. We don't consider the time of day," Harrison said.

In recent days, club workers have taken to social media and spoken to Gambit about the disruptive effect of the raids on their lives, when an expected seasonal windfall has abruptly become a struggle to make rent. Many are critical of NOPD's efforts, which they say have failed to identify human trafficking in Bourbon Street workplaces.

Advocates for Bourbon Alliance of Responsible Entertainers (BARE), a group which lobbies for the rights of dancers and adult entertainment professionals, attended this morning's press conference. In a statement sent to Gambit following the briefing, BARE development director Lyn Archer said "neither ATC nor NOPD was able to clarify 'why now:' citing clubs' owners and pulling liquor licenses during the height of Carnival season. These tactics harm workers, distress citizens and visitors and ultimately undermine supposed 'anti-trafficking.'"


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