Outdoor surveillance cameras will be required at certain types of businesses starting Tuesday, under a new city of Houston ordinance that the ACLU of Texas calls unconstitutional.
The measure is aimed at cracking down on crime and helping Houston police solve crimes when they happen, because “technology, including but not limited to video camera footage, is helpful to law enforcement in identifying and apprehending persons alleged to have committed violent crimes,” according to the ordinance approved by the Houston City Council in April.
It requires bars and nightclubs, convenience stores, sexually-oriented businesses and game rooms to have the cameras, as part of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s One Safe Houston initiative.
“This will give the public an extra layer of safety to know that there are cameras, and you know, it just might deter the robbers,” said Tomaro Bell, public safety chair for the Super Neighborhoods Alliance. “Anything that will help them gather evidence more rapidly, I’m down with it.”
Business owners are required to store footage for at least 30 days and provide it to HPD within 72 hours if a request is made. That’s one part of the ordinance that the ACLU of Texas calls unconstitutional.
“The text says nothing about a warrant being in place before the police obtain surveillance footage,” said Savannah Kumar, an attorney for the ACLU of Texas. “What business owners need to know is that they can still demand a warrant as the constitution allows them to do.”
The ACLU of Texas has not challenged the ordinance in court, she said.
“Police surveillance doesn’t make our communities safer,” Kumar said. “This ordinance is unconstitutional and forcing people to surrender their constitutionally protected rights.”
City data indicates that HPD responded to more than 10,000 crimes at these types of businesses in 2021.
- 7,201 reported crimes at convenience stores
- 2,946 reported crimes at bars and nightclubs, including sexually-oriented businesses
- 94 reported crimes at gambling establishments
“We are at the point where we need to use everything in the toolbox,” Bell said.
Bar owner Al Jara has surveillance cameras at his West University bar, The Marquis II. When a safe with $7,000 in it was stolen from his office in 2020, the cameras captured the thieves.
“I don’t think about doing business without cameras anymore, I think business has evolved a lot over the last couple of decades,” Jara said. “No community is free of criminals.”
While his bar isn’t impacted by the new city of Houston ordinance, he understands the demands put on small business owners every day.
“To put that on a small business owner who is just trying to make every penny count is completely unfair,” he said. “I have no problem being asked to share video whenever a crime has been committed, like I said, I want to be a good community partner, (but) being required is a different story.”
Convenience stores are also required to boost lighting in areas where customers have access, including the exterior of the main building, storefront entrances, parking areas, and fuel pump islands, according to the ordinance. Lights are required to be turned on between sunset and sunrise, and not pointed at next-door residences.
Businesses that do not follow the new rules could face a fine of up to $500.