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Police preview downtown real-time surveillance system

Mayor Francis Slay, left, and St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief Sam Dotson unveil the new Real Time Crime Center at police headquarters.
Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio

The St. Louis Metropolitan Police will get a new tool this summer to help battle crime. Media got a preview Thursday of the Real Time Crime Center, on the sixth floor of police headquarters at 1915 Olive.

"It's a great day for law enforcement, but a bad day for criminals," said police chief Sam Dotson. "The mayor has continually pushed me to find ways to keep this community safer. When we're up operationally, it'll be 24 hours a day. We'll have analysts here triaging calls, listening to police radio, listening to 911 calls, and being able to direct resources to ultimately catch the bad guys."

The city has been planning the Real Time Crime Center for two years -- it's modeled after similar programs in Kansas City, Mo., Memphis, Tenn., and Chicago. The first phase integrates 140 cameras, license plate readers and a gunshot detection tool, into a central location. A staff of eight police officers will then be able to send that information out to officers in real time via in-car computers.

"For officer safety, that's a really big deal," said Capt. Angela Coonce, the commander of the intelligence division. "Witness descriptions often vary greatly. If an officer’s responding to a shooting or a robbery. If that description’s off a little bit, that person could be stopping to talk to a suspect that we don’t know is a suspect that could be armed."

The city funded the $435,000 project using asset forfeiture dollars, federal grants and a donation from the St. Louis Police Foundation. Motorola donated about $400,000 worth of technical support and software.

"I'm thrilled," said Mayor Francis Slay. "This is state-of-the-art geochronology to help our police department do an even better job addressing crime and giving the POs the maximum amount of information so they can do their jobs better and make our neighborhoods safer."

Next stages

The department has secured funding for the first three phases of the center. By this spring, the department wants to add dispatching capabilities, so analysts can send officers if they see crime occurring. Over the summer, the department wants to start integrating cameras owned by private companies into the system.

"Chicago has access to 10,000 cameras," Dotson said. "The city owns about 3,000 of them. We're talking to BJC, Ameren, Downtown Partnership, Central West End, about gaining access to their cameras. That's the smart way to do that, and the efficient way to do that."

The last phase, which is contingent on the passage of a bond issue, includes an expansion of a video wall at the center, an update of the department's record management system, and new software that would allow the analysts to better predict crime.

The center could eventually integrate tools like bait cars, red light cameras, and body and dash cameras.

Civil liberties concerns

An American Civil Liberties Union report released in October was sharply critical of the way the city was expanding its surveillance network, especially without public input or proper privacy protections in place. The city has since required departments with video systems to adopt policies governing the way the cameras can be used. All departments will also have to report annually the location and number of cameras, as well as any violation of the policies.

Both Chief Dotson and Mayor Slay were fairly dismissive of privacy concerns.

"Cameras are everywhere now," Slay said. "If we're going to address crime, we need to be out there as quick as possible, we need to get our officers as much information as possible so they can do their jobs better."

St. Louis isn't the first city to open a real-time intelligence center, Dotson added.

"Cameras in public space are a part of every day life," he said. "It's where we are. People that want to live in olden time and think Big Brother is peering over their shoulder, that's not what we're doing. The real world is this."

protester at the Real Time Crime Center at its opening on April 16, 2015
Credit Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio
Civil liberties groups protested outside police headquarters as a private tour of the new Real Time Crime Center took place inside.

Civil liberties groups said the public had not had enough of a chance to weigh in on the new system.

"This is something that really impacts their day-to-day lives, and the fact that this is taking place without any public input is a real concern," said Jasmin Maurer of Drone-Free St. Louis. "I don't understand why they're afraid of asking the people what they want."

Any crime reduction from monitoring centers is quickly reversed, Maurer said, as criminals get used to the cameras and learn how to avoid them. She was also concerned by the push to include private cameras.

"They decide where they’re going to be, and then they decide where they want to watch it, and then the police monitor what the private companies think are concerns, instead of the people who live in the communities," Maurer said.

Most of the cameras the city can currently access are clustered in the central corridor, though some aldermen have installed their own. Dotson said the city will look to install additional cameras in key spots.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.