12.23.20 -The Current – by Leslie Turk
The gist: Crime Fighters of Louisiana, the private entity contracted to provide security cameras for Lafayette, was issued a cease-and-desist letter from Louisiana’s fire marshal for failing to secure a license required by state law.
What this means: The company, owned by Lafayette businessman and law enforcement booster Brooks Bernard, can’t immediately execute on a cooperative endeavor agreement it quietly signed with Mayor-President Josh Guillory last month. Unknown to the City Council before it was reported by The Current in early December, the agreement allows Bernard to mount his license plate readers on Lafayette Utilities System’s poles throughout the city and unincorporated areas of the parish in exchange for giving Lafayette police access to the footage. Lafayette Consolidated Government assumes the installation and ongoing utility costs; Bernard owns the data.
“Basically, he can’t put up cameras for Lafayette for the CEA until he’s licensed,” fire marshal spokeswoman Ashley Rodrigue tells The Current.
The licensing requirement has been around for more than a decade. Rodrigue says any company contracting for life safety and property protection in Louisiana must be regulated by the state fire marshal, unless it is licensed by the state’s contractor licensing board to perform electrical work. That means Bernard and any employee (he has two) involved in the activity regulated by the fire marshal have to submit to background checks and fingerprinting, and must show proof of specific video surveillance certifications and complete a fire marshal administrative rules course (which is now offered by Zoom).
“He was verbally told a cease and desist would be coming in the mail,” Rodrigue says. The fire marshal’s office emailed all of the licensing requirements and forms to Bernard Monday morning.
Rodrigue says any contracts or relationships Bernard has with existing entities, in which cameras have already been installed, aren’t affected by the action. Crime Fighters, which was incorporated in mid-2018, currently has cameras in Broussard, Abbeville and Duson, among other places around Louisiana. Bernard says approximately 600 officers from different agencies have access to his system.
The cease and desist applies only to activities regulated by her office, like installation and programming. However, the fire marshal is still looking into Crime Fighters’ previous work. “The agency is considering potential penalties for prior unlicensed work,” Rodrigue says. “[T]here is a possibility for some type of administrative action, following an investigation, which could range from a notification/warning to a criminal case,” she continues. “But everything is taken on a case-by-case basis.”
Bernard didn’t think he needed a license. The businessman says he was unaware of the licensing requirement before being contacted by the fire marshal’s office, and contends there remains some question over the issue. “Everybody I’ve ever spoken to said unless I mount into homes, into commercial buildings, or had fire alarms that I was not required. And the fire marshal themselves were not sure as to what the interpretation was.
“They weren’t sure if I needed a license or not,” Bernard says. “They got two lawyers involved to try and interpret the law, and they still weren’t sure, so I told them, ‘Don’t worry about interpreting it. … If it’s just a simple application of a license, I’ll take care of it. We don’t need to fret over this. Let’s get it done.’” The initial cost of the license — his falls under “property protection” for closed circuit TVs — is $250 with an annual $50 renewal. There is a separate $100 charge for each employee application with a $50 annual renewal.
Rodrigue acknowledges there was some discussion among the office’s legal team because the law includes the words “for compensation, either directly or indirectly.” Bernard offers the service at no charge; however, his company recently sold a number of cameras to Abbeville. And there is some value in the data Bernard collects, though it’s unclear how to put a price on it.
Bernard’s contract with Lafayette puts no limitations on how he uses the data he collects, while restricting LCG’s use to “law enforcement purposes.” The arrangement poses some murky legal questions with respect to privacy rights enshrined in the both the U.S. and Louisiana constitutions. Civil liberties protections generally restrain government, not private citizens. And Bernard has characterized himself as beyond the reach of Louisiana’s public records law. While the CEA with LCG is identified as a “no-charge” contract, there is a clear exchange of value: Lafayette gets access to Bernard’s cameras; he gets free utilities and a franchise to collect information.
The fire marshal has settled any question about the requirement. “I believe the correspondence to Mr. Bernard instructing him to get licensed, which states it is being sent after their verbal conversation, could be considered a confirmation of that stance,” Rodrigue says.
Resolving the license issue could delay installing Crime Fighters cameras in Lafayette. Rodrigue says the office can provide a provisional license if a completed application and fees are received, with the background check from Louisiana State Police still pending. “That is a very fresh development in the law,” she notes.
In the meantime, council members have taken issue with the contract itself. The heavily redacted contract obtained by The Current through a public records request makes unclear the scope of the agreement — i.e., the number of cameras and what the cameras are capable of. It’s generally framed as a project to enhance the Lafayette Police Department’s existing surveillance system with cameras deployed in “high crime” areas and near city parks, according to comments from LCG spokesman Jamie Angelle at a press briefing earlier this month.
“I’m not much worried about it,” Bernard says. “I think I can have it resolved in less than a day, according to [the fire marshal’s office].” To be commissioned as a crime analyst for the town of Duson, Bernard was fingerprinted and passed a background check, undergoing the same process as any other law enforcement official, according to Duson Police Chief Kip Judice. (Bernard says he went through a similar process for his concealed weapon application.)
City-Parish Attorney Greg Logan did not respond to a request for information on whether LCG attorneys who drafted the contract had any knowledge of the licensing requirement or what amount of background research was conducted on Crime Fighters prior to signing the CEA. The Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office has used Crime Fighters footage in cases for more than two years with no formal contract in place. In fact, Bernard’s system assisted the state fire marshal in a case involving the death of a woman found in a burning vehicle in DeQuincy last month. That’s the only work the fire marshal has done with Crime Fighters thus far, Rodrigue says.
Bernard suggests it will be a different matter entirely if the fire marshal decides to punish him for any previous unlicensed work. “I think if I fought it, I would not be required to have a license. I would win that battle,” he says. “But if they want to contest anything or fine me, I’m going to stand up and have my lawyer take care of it. But I really don’t think that there’s anything they’re going to have an issue with or I’m going to have an issue with.”
When will cameras go up? That’s not clear. At a press briefing in early December, Guillory’s spokesman seemed to indicate installation on LUS poles in Lafayette was imminent, but said he didn’t have a schedule. “The focus is the start on parks and recreation and areas with high crime,” Jamie Angelle said.
As City Council members wait to get answers to an array of questions about the contract at their Jan. 5 meeting, Bernard says he too has no timeline for camera installation. “When you work for free, you just do it when you get time and can get it squared away,” Bernard says. “I had no intention of installing anything until the council and everybody else is on board with everything, regardless of what’s going on.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A founding editor of both The Independent and ABiz and senior editor at The Times of Acadiana in the 1990s, Leslie Turk has worked in the newspaper business in Lafayette for almost three decades. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Acadiana Advocate and Gambit. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.