Turner’s plan to require security cameras outside bars and nightclubs to deter crime has been met with skepticism

A plan to require Houston bars, convenience stores and nightclubs to install outdoor security cameras returns to City Council on Wednesday amid questions about how it will be enforced and whether it goes far enough to tackle a spike in violent crime.

The proposed order would require night businesses to operate surveillance cameras outside their buildings and turn over footage to the Houston Police Department upon request within 72 hours. In a letter to city council members on Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union called the plan “unconstitutional” and said it would make private companies “extensions of a city-wide surveillance program the city”.

Under the proposed order, businesses could face a $500 citation if they are unable to provide police with surveillance footage within three days of a crime.

The ACLU opposes the fines and said police should be required to obtain a warrant before reviewing the footage, a provision that is not currently included in the order. The mayor’s office said Tuesday it had forwarded the civil liberties group’s concerns to the city attorney’s office.

The Turner administration billed the policy as a low-cost deterrent against robberies, shootings and other violent crimes that the city says occur primarily in bars, nightclubs, convenience stores and businesses in sexual character. With expanded mental health services, improved lighting in convenience stores, gun buy-backs and pushing for minimum bail payments for violent offenders, this is part of the 44 million dollars from the administration known as One Safe Houston.

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The order, presented to council for the second time on Wednesday after a week-long delay, is being scrutinized by some council members who say they have qualms about its practicality and whether it falls within their limited authority. Central to some council members’ concerns are the difficulty of enforcing the order and the prospect of overburdening business owners and the police.

“Police notice you don’t have cameras, they quote you, and then what?” District F council member Tiffany Thomas said Monday. “The order does not trigger any automatic compliance.”

Thomas said she would support the proposal but would prefer an order “with teeth,” one with the power to freeze or shut down businesses that rack up citations with little consequence. Citing the now defunct Chemistry Lounge, a nightclub that racked up more than 70 citations and was the site of a homicide before authorities forced it to close last year, Thomas said that she feared ‘bad actors’ would ignore the new rules, while well-meaning business owners struggled to cope with the cost and inconvenience of recording 24-hour CCTV.

This fear is shared by the Neighborhood Beer Garden and Bar Association, whose members include Little Woodrows, Kirby Ice House and Axelrad Beer Garden. Josh Sanders, a lobbyist for the association, said Monday the city should develop regulations targeting businesses harboring “isolated and extreme” criminal activity, instead of broad ordinances that affect entire industries.

A bigger problem, according to Sanders, is the lack of follow-up to investigations.

“A lot of bars, restaurants or strip clubs already have cameras,” he said. “When incidents do occur, they often pass that information on to the police and it may not be investigated.”

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A 2020 Houston Police Department audit found that untreated cases had languished for months or years. Detectives have solved about half of all homicides in recent years, data shows, and Houston’s solve rates — the percentage of crimes solved via arrest or perpetrator identification — are lower than those from other major cities.

The proposed ordinance aims to try to make bars, nightclubs and convenience stores less attractive to criminals — a tactic that may not be the deterrent city officials are hoping for, said criminal justice professor Kevin Buckler. at the College of Public Service at the University of Houston-Downtown.

“People act on the spur of the moment, on the emotion of the situation,” Buckler said. “Sometimes we think things will have a chilling effect on certain behaviors, and that’s not the case. It’s in the air if the cameras will accomplish what they want them to accomplish.

Buckler said investments in mental health and crisis response teams — like a $44 million initiative announced by the city in February — are much more effective in reducing violent crime.

Council members acknowledged that the cost of installing and maintaining surveillance camera equipment can be onerous for some businesses, especially those struggling in the midst of the pandemic. Prior to Wednesday’s vote, the city had no plans to offer any incentives — a red flag, said Tim Sutherland, a Houston business attorney who often represents bars and restaurants.

“Instead of paying for their own cameras, the city decided it would be less expensive to transfer that to businesses,” Sutherland said. “Companies have to buy them, they have to monitor them and if (the police) ask for images, they have to give them. He achieves the goal, but at no cost to the city.

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