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License plate recognition cameras coming to downtown

Paul Sableman | Flickr

Five license plate recognition cameras paid for by the civic booster organization Downtown STL Inc. will be installed in downtown this month.

Missy Kelley, the chief operating officer for the organization formerly known as the Partnership for Downtown St. Louis, would not say where the cameras will be placed, or give an exact date for activation. Downtown STL Inc. spent about $66,000 on the cameras.

"We're in constant conversations with the police department about ways to make the community feel safer and be safer, and this was part of a conversation looking at the different tools that help keep the community safe," Kelley said.

Downtown STL Inc. used its community improvement district money to purchase the cameras and plans to help buy another 29 cameras over the next two years, with additional funding from the city and federal grants. All of them will eventually link directly to the new real-time intelligence center at St. Louis Metropolitan Police headquarters.

The expanding surveillance raised numerous concerns for John Chasnoff, an activist and former program director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouriwho wrote a 2014 report on cameras in St. Louis.

The growth of interconnected networks is beginning to jeopardize the right to privacy, Chasnoff said. He is also concerned that a quasi-private agency, Downtown STL Inc., purchased the cameras without the public having a chance to weigh in on a "major policy shift."   

"These networks are being built without any community input into their necessity, if it's something we want. And if it is something we want, what kind of policies do we have in place to guard for privacy?" Chasnoff said.

Kelley, the Downtown STL Inc. official, dismissed concerns that the cameras marked a policy change, calling them just another policing tool.

"It's similar to the bomb-sniffing dogs that the Cardinals purchased and loaned to the county police department and the city police department," she said.

The cameras have much greater privacy implications than a dog, Chasnoff said.

"A bomb-sniffing dog can detect something that's out in the public sphere or if there's a search warrant for it," he said. "This is something that affects people who are going about their daily business for whom we have no expectation that they've committed anything criminal and still we're surveilling them."

In his 2014 report, Chasnoff asked the city to abandon its plan for the real-time intelligence center and halt the installation of additional cameras until appropriate privacy regulations are developed. Jeff Rainford, at the time the chief of staff to Mayor Francis Slay, said the administration would work with the ACLU on common-sense rules, but was looking to increase the use of cameras as funding became available, and would open the real-time intelligence center as funding became available.

The monitoring center was scheduled to open in the spring, using grants from Motorola and the St. Louis Police Foundation.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

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