Will everything stay in New Orleans if cameras capture it all?

A New Orleans Police Department surveillance camera monitors foot traffic on Bourbon Street, Jan. 25, 2018. In a bid to stop violent crime, New Orleans may create an extensive realtime surveillance system, but some worry if the city can maintain its famously freewheeling culture on streets blanketed by 1,500 camera.
A New Orleans Police Department surveillance camera monitors foot traffic on Bourbon Street, Jan. 25, 2018. In a bid to stop violent crime, New Orleans may create an extensive realtime surveillance system, but some worry if the city can maintain its famously freewheeling culture on streets blanketed by 1,500 camera. The New York Times

Can the allure of this famously rakish and freewheeling city survive if its streets are blanketed by a 1,500-camera video monitoring system?

Will inhibitions start to creep in and diminish the improvisatory nature of street life here, putting a hitch in the strut of Mardi Gras revelers and second-line paraders? Will tourists intent on indulging in a little sin stay away if they think they are being watched?

New Orleans officials, burdened with a seemingly intractable violent crime problem, are considering a plan that would create one of the most extensive video-monitoring systems for any midsize American city. The plan would require every business with an alcohol license to install street-facing security cameras, and connect them to a real-time monitoring center overseen by the city.

But along with typically vexing civil liberties issues, the proposal has sparked concerns that surveillance will somehow suck the soul out of the place, quashing the promise of the Mardi Gras anthem “Do Whatcha Wanna,” which serves as a siren song for tourists and a kind of mission statement for many residents.

The police say that live streams and recorded footage from the cameras would be used primarily to solve violent crimes. But residents such as Daniel Dean, whose livelihood depends on the city’s allure as a place to let one’s hair down, are worried that revelers will lose their taste for revelry under the cameras’ eye.

Under the stage name Atomyc Adonis, Dean performs at Oz, a dance club on that middle stretch of Bourbon Street where the overgrown frat-party vibe turns decidedly, exuberantly gay. He is there Tuesday nights as part of a show called “Bourbon Boylesque.”

He knows that many of his fans, particularly those from the small-town South, count on New Orleans following the Las Vegas rule — that what happens there will stay there.

“People come here to retreat, to let go,” said Dean, 33, whose costumes include thigh-high boots and formal evening wear that does not stay on long. “You’re kind of invading people’s release to be a person that might be seen as provocative or inappropriate.”

The American Civil Liberties Union is no more supportive of the camera proposal than he is. The group has opposed widespread video-monitoring systems in cities such as Chicago and New York, and it has rolled out similar objections to the New Orleans plan: It would threaten privacy rights, have a “disparate racial impact” on people of color, and “threaten to undo much of the progress that’s been made to strengthen the bonds of trust between the community and the police.”

But the debate has also taken on a distinctly local flavor.

“We have a very vibrant public life, where people feel free to express themselves in public — and I’m not just talking about beads and lifting your top on Mardi Gras,” said Bruce Hamilton, a staff attorney with the civil liberties union’s Louisiana branch.

“Everyone acts different when they know the government is watching,” Hamilton said. “Suddenly you’re aware of being watched, and being followed, and it changes how you act.”

The camera plan is part of a broader security overhaul that the administration of Mayor Mitch Landrieu announced last January after a mass shooting on Bourbon Street. It has attracted a barrage of criticism, though, and the administration says it is undergoing some fine-tuning before being put before the City Council.

The city has one of the highest murder rates of any American city, logging 157 murders in 2017 — about half as many as New York City, whose population is more than 20 times as large. The previous year was worse, with 174 murders.

The persistent violence is its own threat to tourism, as well as to the legacy of Landrieu, who will leave office in May after an eight-year run because of term limits.

He asserted this month that another of his signature crime-reduction programs, NOLA for Life — a multifaceted effort to keep young people out of trouble through mentoring, midnight basketball and the like — had made a “significant dent” in violent crime. But Peter Scharf, a crime expert at the Louisiana State University School of Public Health, said it has been difficult to establish a causal link between city policies and crime statistics.

The broad public safety plan announced last year, which included an early version of the camera plan, discussed taking steps to “reduce the culture of permissiveness” in New Orleans. One of its ideas, to force bars to simply close their doors at 3 a.m. (though they could keep serving customers), has already been shelved after a flurry of criticism.

And there are doubts about whether the cameras would achieve their purpose. The city’s Independent Crime Monitor wrote a letter to council members in November, citing studies showing that video monitoring programs elsewhere have often had little effect on violent crime.

The letter noted that “rampant misuse has already presented itself within similar systems in the USA,” and cited a review of London camera monitoring that found abuses like voyeuristic monitoring of women’s bodies and a tendency to over-monitor black people.

Though the plan to require them on private property is still being debated, New Orleans is already installing scores of cameras and license-plate readers on public property, concentrated in 20 crime “hot spots” around the city. Last fall, the city opened a Real Time Crime Monitoring Center, with a huge wall of screens showing video feeds of street scenes, in a building at the edge of the French Quarter.

A block away at the Black Penny, a tiny bar on North Rampart Street, grousing over the cameras was easy to find. “It’s going to be very clinical — it’s going to take the mystique, the romanticism out of the city,” said Alyx Gauthier, 27, a local service-industry worker who was nursing a pint on a recent afternoon. “This city was built by pirates and whores,” she said.

Inside the new monitoring center, Michael S. Harrison, the police superintendent, seemed mildly annoyed by the criticism. “I don’t think it’s going to change the nature of the city the way this citizen that you spoke to characterized it,” he said. “I think it’s going to change the nature of this city because criminals, who have in their heart, mind and soul to commit violent harm against other citizens, will think differently.”

Aaron Miller, the city’s director of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said the idea was partially inspired by Detroit’s Project Green Light, which allows businesses there to set up surveillance cameras that feed into a city monitoring system. That system, though, is voluntary.

Miller said that when a 911 dispatcher in New Orleans gets a report of a serious crime, software at the monitoring center will automatically call up video from the cameras nearest to the scene.

If the wider plan goes ahead, the police will also be able to quickly draw on the cameras of business owners, who will be required to keep 14 days’ worth of footage stored online. Miller said the center itself was under video surveillance, and that use of video footage is automatically logged and tracked as a precaution against voyeurism, blackmail or other abuses.

Some local advocates for immigrants are concerned that federal officials might try to use the system to ferret out undocumented people. But Harrison said that he would not allow that.

“People are not under surveillance,” Harrison said. “We want to make that clear.”

The 22-page public safety proposal includes other provisions that make bar owners bristle. One would allow an alcohol license to be suspended if the city receives five written complaints from nearby property owners or residents.

At the Café Lafitte in Exile on Bourbon Street, the bar owners’ objections to the plan have been printed up on a large poster that hangs near the entrance. On Wednesday, Ryan Hughes, who works at the bar, directed a reporter to the poster while a quartet of patrons in neon-dyed beards looked on. One of them was holding a potbellied pig.

“It’s almost like a direct attack on the bar culture in this city,” Hughes said.

Away from the tourist trail, however, the opinions are not so uniform. From his porch in a working-class stretch of the Upper Ninth Ward, Kelby Reed, 31, gestured to the parking lot of a corner store a few doors down.

“That store had some shootings and stuff before, so it might help with that,” Reed said of the camera proposal.

Katherine Prevost, the head of the Ninth Ward’s Bunny Friend Neighborhood Association, said the cameras might help provide evidence about violent crimes when local residents are reluctant to call the police.

“They could put cameras everywhere, as far as I care,” Prevost said. “If you’re doing the right thing anyway, the cameras shouldn’t matter.”