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Aldermanic Committee Backs Aerial Surveillance To Fight Crime In St. Louis

A screenshot of the Public Safety committee of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen on Jan. 5, 2021.
Rachel Lippmann
St. Louis Public Radio
Members of the Public Safety Committee of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, along with supporters and opponents of an aerial surveillance program, participate in a video conference meeting of the committee on Tuesday.

A controversial aerial surveillance program has cleared its first hurdle at the St. Louis Board of Aldermen.

The board’s Public Safety Committee voted 6-1 Tuesday to endorse a three-year contract with Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems.

“The stated goals, quite frankly, of the bill and of the agreement is justice for victims and their families,” said Alderman Tom Oldenburg, D-16th Ward, the sponsor of the legislation. “2020 was the most violent year we have seen in 50 years. We have to immediately have an active plan that will enhance our existing technology to bring more justice to those 262 families and all of those who have fallen victim to homicide and other violent crimes.”

Alderwoman Shameem Clark-Hubbard, D-26th Ward, was the lone no vote, saying that she understood the value of surveillance technology but wasn’t sure the plane was the answer to the city’s violent crime problem.

The company’s planes fly at low altitude while taking photos of the city, which investigators can use to track the movement of people or cars leaving the scene of crimes. That information can be paired with ground-level cameras to identify witnesses or suspects. Funding for the surveillance planes would come from yet-to-be-identified sources.

The deal limits the plane’s use to 15 specific crimes or other emergency situations like Amber Alerts or after natural disasters. Most are serious felonies like homicide and kidnapping, but surveillance can also be authorized for instances of illegal dumping.

“We’re aimed at trying to make places better places to live, work and play, and raise your family,” said Ross McNutt, the company’s chief executive officer.

Opponents decried the flights as an unnecessary invasion of privacy with unknown benefits.

“I think whenever we’re approaching surveillance technology for the city of St. Louis, we should be asking ourselves three questions: Is it effective, what do we give up in order to use that technology, and will people be held accountable?” said Sara Baker, the legislative and policy director with the ACLU of Missouri.

There is limited evidence about the effectiveness of the cameras, Baker said, and the legal footing of the program remains unsettled because a federal appeals court has yet to rule, though a lower court found the planes constitutional.

Khalea Edwards, who lives in the 7th Ward, said cameras would have made no difference in finding who killed her brother-in-law in 2014.

“We never needed a plane to tell us who killed him,” she said. “But we also know that it’s more important to stop the killings than it is to put people in prison. So what we need to do is focus our efforts on programs that actually stop the killings.”

Baltimore was the first city to sign a contract with PSS. An initial pilot program, begun under extreme secrecy in 2016, was plagued by poor record-keeping, according to a report in Baltimore magazine. The city’s police department said that, at most, the surveillance had helped solve one of the 100 homicides that took place during those initial flights.

A second pilot program ended Oct. 31. McNutt said an initial report showed big improvements in the closure rates of homicides and shootings where the planes were used. But those numbers remain under review to determine whether the technology was a direct cause of the cases being solved, or whether the increase was a coincidence.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott told the Baltimore Sun late last year it was unlikely the plane would fly again. A former aide to Scott, Caylin Young, told the committee that the administration believed the money that was being spent on the plane could be better directed toward proven tools like closed-circuit cameras and license plate readers, though he emphasized that he was not speaking for the mayor.

No one from the St. Louis police department or the Department of Public Safety was present at the committee meeting. A spokesman for Mayor Lyda Krewson said that concerns remained about privacy and the effectiveness of the planes, but that the administration is listening to the conversation at the Board of Aldermen.

The bill is expected to take a procedural step at Friday’s board meeting. Final passage could come Jan. 22, though it is not clear if Krewson will sign the bill if it reaches her desk. McNutt said the program could be running within three to four months of the contract's approval.

A spokesman for the St. Louis County Police Department said in an email that he did not know if PSS had contacted the department, but added he didn’t know “if it would be appropriate to discuss what could potentially be a contract negotiation.”

Use of the plane in St. Louis County would be more complicated because the region is patrolled by multiple departments, all of which would have to sign agreements with the company.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Aldermanic Committee Backs Aerial Surveillance To Fight Crime In St. Louis
On Tuesday, the public safety committee of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen voted to endorse a controversial aerial surveillance program in hopes of solving violent crime. In this episode, we discuss the proposal with Missouri Independent reporter, Rebecca Rivas.

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