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Aerial surveillance plan advances at St. Louis Board of Aldermen

Aerial surveillance plan advances at St. Louis Board of Aldermen

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St. Louis City Hall

The Tucker Boulevard entrance to St. Louis City Hall.

ST. LOUIS — Legislation to spur regular aerial surveillance of the city to help fight violent crime advanced Tuesday at the Board of Aldermen over objections of opponents who fear that civil liberties of average citizens could be jeopardized.

The board’s Public Safety Committee voted 6-1 to send the measure to the full board.

The bill would direct Mayor Lyda Krewson or her successor to contract with an Ohio company that uses planes to track movement of suspects and vehicles moments after a crime is committed.

“We must do anything we can to curb crime in our city,” said one supporter, Alderman John Collins-Muhammad, D-21st Ward. “We need to be innovative, creative and bold.”

Collins-Muhammad and some other aldermen backing the plan said their areas and constituents on the city’s north side have been especially hard hit by the increasing violence.

Most of the more than 20 speakers at the lengthy teleconference hearing opposed the bill. They worried that anyone traveling down a city street would be photographed and that resulting video and related data could be used for purposes other than tracking down suspected felons.

“We think the potential for abuse of civil liberties far outweighs any potential benefit,” said Robert Linsey, secretary of Amnesty Missouri, a state affiliate of Amnesty International.

“This is essentially military hardware that is now being deployed domestically.”

The sponsor, Alderman Tom Oldenburg, D-16th Ward,cited a recent Post-Dispatch article that noted that the 262 people murdered in the city last year raised the city’s homicide rate to its highest in more than 50 years.

He said the images captured by the planes flying up to 18 hours a day would be used in tandem with existing street-level cameras employed by the city and neighborhood organizations. He said the contract would include safeguards against abuses.

Ross McNutt, who heads the company — Persistent Surveillance Systems — reiterated that the wide-angle aerial cameras can only track pixels and not identify individuals or their race.

Supporters hope that the estimated $7.5 million cost of the three-year trial program would be borne by John and Laura Arnold, a billionaire Texas couple who have offered to fund such a pilot effort in a city with a violent crime problem.

Opponents said it would make more sense to use that money to address what they said are root causes of crime such as poverty, hunger and lack of health care.

“PSS’s spy planes won’t do this,” said Sarah Felts, a Tower Grove South resident.

“This falls into the failed arrest and incarcerate method that doesn’t work,” added Madison Orozco of the North Hampton neighborhood.

Among other opponents were representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression.

One aldermanic opponent, Megan Green, D-15th Ward, who isn’t on the committee, asked Oldenburg why he was pushing for the measure now before it’s known who will be elected in April to succeed the retiring Krewson.

“Does that tie their hands for the next three years?” Green asked.

Oldenburg said in response that “whoever’s going to be the mayor, it’s our job to govern.”

Critics also questioned why the measure is being pushed when final reports have yet to be issued on the effectiveness of a six-month trial aerial surveillance program in Baltimore by McNutt’s company.

Oldenburg last year got aldermen to approve a nonbinding resolution that urged Krewson and public safety officials to discuss a possible contract with the company. He introduced the current bill to force the issue.

The mayor’s spokesman said last month that she has concerns about privacy issues and the program’s effectiveness but that the office would be monitoring the discussion among aldermen.

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