A proposal before the New Orleans City Council, pushed as an anti-crime measure, would allow a newly created task force to withhold liquor licenses from bars the city determines to be “contributing to, facilitating, or otherwise complacent” about “criminal activity surrounding the establishment.”

The resolution would set up a task force including the New Orleans Police Department and the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control to identify “problematic” alcoholic beverage outlets. The city’s Department of Safety and Permits would be prohibited from issuing new liquor licenses to any business identified by the task force unless its operators submit a “task-force approved plan” to address quality of life issues in its vicinity.

The resolution was advanced by the council’s Criminal Justice Committee on Monday (Jan. 23), but it still needs approval from the full council before it goes into effect.

But council members have so far offered scant evidence to show that alcohol vendors play a significant role in violent crime or that shutting them down would lead to significant improvements. The only justification cited in the resolution is a statistic that “alcohol is a factor in 40% of all violent crimes nationally.”

In a separate but related measure, the council is also considering a “chronic nuisance” ordinance that would create new civil penalties for owners of properties that had evidence of being repeatedly used for drug, gang or violent crime activity. According to Councilman JP Morrell, the ATC partnership will help identify those businesses. That ordinance will be considered by a council committee on Monday, Jan. 30. 

The two measures come as the city ended 2022 with its highest number of murders since 2003 and highest murder rate since 1996. The new year has gotten off to a similarly violent start. 

“With the crime situation at this level, every idea has to be tested,” Morrell, who sponsored the resolution, told Verite in an interview. A spokesperson for Mayor LaToya Cantrell said that “we are supportive of any collaboration aimed at improving public safety.” 

It appears that the idea for the task force didn’t come from the police. Instead, Morrell said the idea is based on community complaints. 

“We get a tremendous amount of unsolicited tips from individuals in communities saying, ‘Why is this place still open? People get stabbed or robbed or injured near here,'” Morrell said. “I know from my conversations with residents there are at least two to three bars in the 7th Ward in particular.”

This isn’t the first time the city has attempted to put stricter rules on bars in the name of public safety. In 2017, then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu pushed an ordinance — likewise presented as part of a crime-fighting plan — that would have required all alcohol vendors to close their doors at 3 a.m. and install surveillance cameras that would feed live footage to the city’s surveillance hub. In 2019, the City Council considered an ordinance that would have given the NOPD and New Orleans Fire Department superintendents the power to unilaterally shut down alcohol vendors over safety concerns. Those measures were eventually dropped after significant pushback. 

The newest proposed crackdown on alcohol vendors is already facing some skepticism from local hospitality-worker advocates and industry groups. After hearing back from hospitality industry representatives, Morrell said he would offer an amendment to add representatives from two groups to the task force: The Louisiana Restaurant Association and the Louisiana Hotel and Lodging Association. Neither of those groups responded to requests for comment on Monday. 

“I wouldn’t say they’re necessarily in support of it,” Morrell said. “Whenever you have anything that deals with alcoholic beverage outlets, restaurants in particular are very concerned they can have their permits arbitrarily revoked.”

Those concerns were echoed by Ethan Ellestad, executive director of The Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans. Ellestad has for years fought against city attempts to make it easier to shut down bars and music venues. And he told Verite that he was worried about the broad and vague language in the task force resolution. It doesn’t define what rubric the task force will use to label a business as “problematic” or “complacent” or what a business will have to do to shed that designation. 

“This is an issue we track a lot,” he said. “Any time there’s a lot of gray area in a resolution or ordinance like this there’s a cause for concern. The more gray area there is, the more leeway there is, the more chance there is for arbitrary decisions. And there’s more of an opportunity for inequity to seep into that process.”

The resolution also doesn’t specify whether task force meetings will be public or whether it will have to provide a clear justification when shutting a bar down. Ellestad said that behind the scenes decision making can lead to disadvantages for less well-resourced businesses, especially those that aren’t official members of the Louisiana Restaurant Association. 

“There’s also an inequity in which businesses have access to influence and resources to adequately defend themselves,” he said. “It seems like more and more this will come down to small businesses, neighborhood businesses, Black-owned businesses that won’t have the same access to influence this process.”

During Monday’s meeting, Morrell said that “there are a tremendous amount of problematic ABO outlets throughout the city.” But Ellestad took issue with the lack of evidence cited showing that bars are significantly contributing to violent crime or that their removal would significantly increase safety. 

“Again I’m not sure where that figure of ‘a tremendous amount of problematic outlets’ comes from or what that means or what problematic means,” Ellestad said. “There’s no figures at all for what is happening in New Orleans,”

Howie Kaplan, the owner of the Howlin’ Wolf music club and the director of the Mayor’s Office of Nighttime Economy, told Verite that he was supportive of the effort.

“The vast majority of these places, 99%, are doing it the right way,” Kaplan said. “So any time we can concentrate resources on people who are doing it the wrong way and put public safety at risk, that’s a good thing.”

When pressed on the specifics of the law and the new task force’s ability to unilaterally shut down businesses, Kaplan said that there was an open dialogue between the city and the hospitality industry and that talks would continue.

“Definitely that will be up for discussion and I can’t imagine that this is where it ends,” he said. “I think everything we’re trying to do is well meaning. But the devil’s in the details.”

‘Whose morality?’

The resolution would set up a task force made up of representatives from the NOPD, the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control, the Department of Safety and Permits and the City Council.

The central aim of the task force, Morrell said, is to leverage ATC’s resources at a time when both the NOPD and the city Department of Safety and Permits are facing personnel shortages. 

“This would allow us to also use ATC as an enforcement and investigatory arm,” Morrell said. “When we’re seeing a lot of crime, certainly violent crime, in a certain geographic area, we can concentrate ATC resources to say, can you go see if there’s illegal alcohol sales there or something of the like.”

As an example of the type of business that might get targeted by the task force, Morrell said he often hears about stores that sell marijuana paraphernalia, like rolling papers, to underage kids. He says that because most stores follow the rules and check IDs, teenagers will tend to hang out at the stores that don’t. That, he said, can cause interactions that can lead to violence.

“Let’s say you have two different kids from two different groups that don’t normally cross paths, they’ll cross paths at this location because they know that’s the place to go,” he said.

There are already processes local and state governments can use to pull liquor licenses from establishments that break the law, including through the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. The task force, however, appears to be different in a couple ways. 

“It takes it out of the public sphere, and again it creates what seems to be a much more arbitrary way of deciding.”

Ethan Ellestad, Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans

To start, the task force could pull licenses not only from establishments that break the law or are declared a public nuisance by a court, but also those that are found to be “complacent in criminal activity surrounding the establishment.” The resolution also makes references to business’ “moral obligations” to promote safety.

“Whose morality? The morality of the people deciding?” Ellestad said. “Maybe the people in charge don’t like hip-hop or bounce clubs, or the people complaining don’t. These are real concerns that seep into the cultural realm.”

Verite asked Morrell what level of responsibility a business has to prevent violence in its vicinity other than following the law. 

“It’s an interesting question,” he said. “If you’re a bar along a thoroughfare, and a lot of violence and unfortunate circumstances happen in that thoroughfare, and you are a good partner who’s doing everything possible to make sure your place is a safe place that’s not overserving people, who’s not giving alcohol to underage people, and not making that environment inhospitable, I think you’ll be fine.”

Another way the task force would differ from the current process is that the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board holds public hearings that give businesses an opportunity to defend themselves. The task force resolution gives no details about how the task force will make its decisions, whether they will have to justify its decisions to the public or whether businesses can appeal their designation as a “problematic business.”

“It takes it out of the public sphere, and again it creates what seems to be a much more arbitrary way of deciding,” Ellestad said. 

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Before joining Verite, Michael Isaac Stein spent five years as an investigative reporter at The Lens, a nonprofit New Orleans news publication, covering local government, housing and labor issues. During...