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Messenger: Let the Ohio purveyor of the spy plane find an easy mark in another river city
Tony's Take

Messenger: Let the Ohio purveyor of the spy plane find an easy mark in another river city

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Privacy Watch STL rally

Inez Bordeaux, speaks in front of St. Louis City Hall, Tuesday, July 7, 2020 as a representative of the group Privacy Watch STL, to voice the group's concerns about the loss of privacy through surveillance cameras and spy planes. The group called for the defeat of the Board of Aldermen's Resolution 24, which would allow the discussion to explore how the use of persistent surveillance might be employed as a part of the city?s crime reduction strategy. About 15 people were present. Photo by Hillary Levin,

I’m not sure if Clark Stanley ever traveled through St. Louis, but if he did, he might have found a gullible bunch of customers.

In the late 1800s, Stanley was perhaps the nation’s preeminent purveyor of “snake oil,” that metaphorical tonic offered as a cure for aches and pains and other ailments. The original snake oil came to America with Chinese immigrants who used oil from water snakes that was rich in omega-3 acids that are effective in reducing inflammation. Stanley, who became known as the “Rattlesnake King,” claimed his tonic was developed with lessons he learned from Hopi medicine men. Indeed, it was nothing of the sort. It was a scam for which Stanley was eventually fined.

These days, there are no shortage of snake oil salesmen seeing St. Louis as their next mark. There was the billionaire pushing airport privatization as a cure for all that ails the city, a magical pill if only the city would hand over its top asset for pennies on the dollar. There was the promise of a new age energy producer that would burn trash in an environmentally sound way in north St. Louis, if only the city would invest tax incentives in a project that hadn’t succeeded elsewhere. And, of course, there is the spy plane, the bill sponsored by Alderman Tom Oldenburg that would seek to carry out surveillance of St. Louisans from the skies above in an attempt to reduce crime, even though there is no evidence that a spy plane would stop even one car-jacking or murder or theft.

The spy plane is the pie-in-the-sky invention of Ross McNutt, owner of Persistent Surveillance Systems of Ohio. Its first pilot project, in Baltimore, was funded by the foundation established by two Texas billionaires, John and Laura Arnold. The spy plane didn’t last in Baltimore very long, because there was no data that it helped, and it became the target of criticism of both law enforcement and residents worried about the loss of their civil liberties.

Still, St. Louis aldermen gave initial approval to Oldenburg’s bill that would urge the next mayor to contract with McNutt’s company, if only the Arnolds would provide funding. This week, the Arnolds, through their foundation Arnold Ventures, said there would be no such funding.

This is not to say that the Arnolds are snake oil salesmen. Quite the contrary. The philanthropists took a chance, funded a pilot project, studied the data and moved on, something the Board of Aldermen should do on the silly spy plane .

If the aldermen are serious about tackling the city’s crime problem, they would do well to listen to some of the data the Arnolds have funded in other areas, particularly in the area of pre-trial detention, another issue that has divided the aldermen recently. Just a few months ago, the board was unified on the concept of closing the workhouse, the city’s medium security jail that has long been a source of controversy. Lately, that unification split, mostly along racial lines, with Black aldermen mostly backing a new proposal to take the issue to a public vote. Some of those aldermen and their allies have tried to cast the new divide along racial lines.

I’m not sure how it suddenly became racist to cast a consistent vote to close the workhouse, when every alderman agreed on the issue just a few months ago; most of the activists pushing the issue are Black; and particularly, when the city’s arguments against closing the workhouse haven’t changed. That’s the nature of the Board of Aldermen sometimes.

But back to the Arnolds: They would agree with closing the workhouse. In fact, a study funded by the Texas philanthropists is quoted in an amicus brief filed in 2019 in support of a lawsuit filed against the city by ArchCity Defenders questioning bail practices.

“St. Louis’s bail system makes the community weaker by depriving citizens of community ties and the means to support themselves and by increasing the likelihood of future criminal activity,” reads the brief, filed by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation. The brief references a 2013 study of Kentucky pre-trial practices funded by the Arnolds. It found that holding people in jail longer before trial makes them more likely to commit crimes later.

In other words, reducing incarceration of the sorts of people traditionally held at the workhouse could improve public safety. The Arnolds are continuing to fund a series of studies on bail and pre-trial practices to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars because the data is pointing to solutions that make cities safer. Beyond distracting aldermanic disputes over whether the workhouse gym has a new coat of paint, that has long been the driving force behind the close the workhouse movement: St. Louis could better spend the money it uses to keep an underutilized jail open to stabilize families and neighborhoods, and, ultimately, reduce crime.

The Arnolds are following the data. Perhaps we should listen to them and let the Ohio snake oil salesman seek a mark in some other river city.

Tony Messenger • 314-340-8518 @tonymess on Twitter

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