Portland’s mandate for bar to install camera stirs civil rights debate

Posted Jan. 13, 2011, at 11:09 a.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — The city’s decision to require a bar on Portland Street to install surveillance cameras may become a model for bars in areas where crime is a problem, but it is raising concerns for civil libertarians.

The City Council told the owner of Ricky’s Tavern this month to install the cameras, even though no one had alleged that patrons of the bar were causing problems.

Neighbors have complained of prostitutes on streets in the area and said some people who gather behind the bar have caused problems. But the owner said his customers are not allowed out back, and that prostitutes are not a problem in his establishment.

Ed Simmons, who runs Ricky’s, said it could cost up to $2,500 for the four cameras he plans: one covering the Portland Street side of the bar and sidewalk, a second on the Mechanic Street side and sidewalk, a third in the back, and a fourth inside the bar.

Simmons said he’s not opposed to installing the cameras and sharing any footage with police, but he thinks they are unlikely to detect any serious problems.

“We don’t have any serious crime right in the area of the bar,” he said. As for prostitutes, “we recognize the one prostitute that comes around occasionally,” and he and bar employees tell her to move on.

The police agree.

Assistant Chief Michael Sauschuck said police did not object to a liquor license renewal for Ricky’s Tavern or ask for the cameras.

“There’s some public nuisance offenses down there — to include prostitution, drug dealing, drug usage — that people automatically attribute to Ricky’s, even though when we did a thorough analysis … we did not agree,” Sauschuck said. “We look at it as more of a neighborhood issue, with regard to the high volume of subjects seeking social service assets and resources in that area.”

The council approved Ricky’s entertainment license, with the cameras as a condition, after Simmons said at a neighborhood meeting that he would put them in if residents thought they might help.

City Councilor Jill Duson said she was concerned that the city was making the cameras a requirement for a license, when Simmons had already agreed to install them.

Duson, who wants the council to review the liquor license for Bubba’s Sulky Lounge, next to Ricky’s Tavern, when it comes up for renewal next month, said her concern is seeing the area cleaned up.

“If that means cameras, that would be fine with me,” she said, but she isn’t interested in having police install cameras to watch the area.

“The City Council, I don’t think, is at a place where it wants to approve general surveillance,” she said. “There’s a big difference between the municipality, the government, having this kind of observation of what’s going on on a public street and a private business using a camera to monitor activity on private property.”

But the head of the Maine Civil Liberties Union disagrees, because the cameras at Ricky’s Tavern will take in the sidewalks alongside the bar.

“Video cameras are becoming a more widespread feature of American life, and this is troubling in a democratic society,” said Shenna Bellows, executive director of the MCLU.

requiring a property owner to install cameras, “the city appears to be getting around the political problem of government surveillance,” she said.

State law bars police from using traffic cameras to catch drivers who run red lights or commit other infractions, but it doesn’t bar police surveillance cameras in general, Bellows said.

Portland has surveillance cameras in some offices where cash is exchanged, such as the city clerk’s office, said Nicole Clegg, a spokeswoman for the city.

The city’s only outdoor surveillance cameras are on the waterfront, she said, where they were required and largely paid for by the federal Department of Homeland Security, for port security.

Clegg said the city may have required security cameras in some structures, such as parking garages, but not in office buildings, apartments, stores, bars or restaurants. She said police often recommend surveillance cameras to businesses.

By requiring Ricky’s to install cameras, “it definitely appears the city is using the bar to conduct surveillance of the public under the assumption that bad things are going to happen,” Bellows said. “It has a chilling effect” on people’s behavior and freedom of movement.

City Councilor John Anton said he supported the cameras after considering the impact, including the cost to the business, versus the potential for cracking down on crime in the area.

“I like to think of myself as a civil libertarian,” he said. “There is a reasonable ‘slippery slope’ argument — are we going to start requiring this of everybody?”

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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