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St. Louis Aerial Surveillance Program Gets Preliminary OK By One Vote

A screenshot of a virtual St. Louis Board of Aldermen meeting on Jan. 22, 2021
Rachel Lippmann
St. Louis Public Radio
The St. Louis Board of Aldermen spent more than three hours Friday debating legislation that authorizes a contract for aerial surveillance in the city. The measure got first-round approval by a the narrowest of margins.

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

A contract with Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems received first-round approval Friday by a 15-14 vote amid concerns about civil liberties and whether the actions of the aldermen were legal. It still needs one more vote to get to Mayor Lyda Krewson’s desk.

“There are two simple questions here,” said Alderman Tom Oldenburg, D-16th Ward, the bill’s primary sponsor. “Do you want to implement SLMPD with a safe, protected, no-cost technology that has the opportunity to increase our homicide closure rates in the city? And if not, what’s the concrete plan you propose to increase your homicide closure rates?”

The company’s planes fly at low altitude 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.

Alderman John Collins-Muhammad, D-21st Ward, said so many of those who have spoken against the bill do not live in his ward and therefore do not experience the sustained violence he and his residents see.

“My residents ask me for more cameras, they ask me for more police presence, they ask for more surveillance,” he said. “If we could have an aerial surveillance just covering the 21st Ward, I would be all for it.”

At the request of Krewson, Oldenburg shortened the length of the contract from three years to 18 months, and put in language explicitly barring the use of public funds. The new bill also leaves it up to the police department to decide whether to integrate the planes into a network of existing technology that includes license plate readers and more conventional surveillance cameras.

But the changes did not assuage the concerns of some on the board like Christine Ingrassia, D-6th Ward. A legal opinion from the city counselor, she said, makes it clear that aldermen don’t have the authority to bind a city department like police into a contract.

“If we want to do this the right way, there is a way to do this correctly,” Ingrassia said. “We are not doing that today. Let’s do this the right way if we want to do a pilot program to see if this can really bring relief to some really serious issue we have here in the city.”

And Alderwoman Sharon Tyus, D-1st Ward, said her north city ward needs a plan to help it recover from decades of disinvestment.

“If the plan is to run a plane across my backyard, I don’t want it. My community doesn’t want it,” she said. “People think you can police crime and poverty and it will go away.”

A spokeswoman for Krewson said the mayor is watching to see if the bill makes it to her desk and in what form. The board currently has two more meetings scheduled before it takes a break for election campaigning, although extra dates could be scheduled.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

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

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