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No money for aerial surveillance in St. Louis, Texas philanthropists say

No money for aerial surveillance in St. Louis, Texas philanthropists say

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Eric Melancon, chief of staff for the Baltimore Police Department, left, and Ross McNutt, founder of the Persistent Surveillance Systems, look over the plane before it started flying over Baltimore. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun/TNS)

ST. LOUIS — Arnold Ventures, a Texas-based philanthropy, said Tuesday it will not provide any funding for an aerial surveillance program currently being considered by the St. Louis Board of Aldermen.

The group had paid for a pilot program last year in Baltimore, and had been cited as a possible source of funding for a similar effort here being led by Alderman Tom Oldenburg, D-16th Ward.

On Friday, the board voted 15-14 to give preliminary approval to Oldenburg’s measure, which would allow an 18-month trial effort.

The bill, which could come up for final passage as soon as Friday, would direct Mayor Lyda Krewson or her successor to contract with Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems proposing to fly airplanes up to 18 hours a day over the city.

In an email sent on Dec. 17 and made public earlier this month, the philanthropy said it would only consider funding the St. Louis program if public money was also involved, consistent with “a demonstration of strong political support” and “strong community support” for the plan.

But the statement Tuesday eliminates any possibility of funding from that organization.

Oldenburg on Tuesday said he would continue to seek passage of his measure and reiterated his position that it’s up to Persistent Surveillance to come up with private funding. The proposed contract attached to his legislation also says it would not kick in without it.

“I don’t care if they’re in or out,” Oldenburg said of Arnold Ventures. “The onus is on the contractor and always has been to find a funder to make this free.”

An opponent, Alderman Christine Ingrassia, D-6th Ward, said the Arnold statement “supplements the argument this is not the best time to move this forward.

“We need to be doing things a lot differently (with the proposal), including having money at the table before we move the legislation forward.”

Ross McNutt, the owner of Persistent Surveillance, since his first appearance before an aldermanic committee in 2019 has said that the Arnold organization would be a likely funding source.

Earlier this month, McNutt said there also are other potential funding sources that he and other supporters had been in contact with but he didn’t identify them. He also said then that the city could potentially seek federal Justice Department grants.

Arnold Ventures is funded by John and Laura Arnold, a billionaire couple from Houston.

In a statement provided to the Post-Dispatch on Tuesday, the philanthropy said, “After 11 months of implementation, evaluation and preliminary research, we have decided against further investments in the program at this time. Therefore, Arnold Ventures will not fund the aerial investigative effort proposed in St. Louis.”

Supporters of Oldenburg’s bill say the aerial cameras could help police stem the city’s soaring violent crime problem and solve more homicide cases. They would be used to track suspects and vehicles from the crime scene.

Opponents warned that the plan posed a threat to civil liberties of average citizens whose movements along streets also would be picked up by the overhead cameras.__________

Here is Arnold Ventures’ full statement:

“Our mission at Arnold Ventures is to maximize opportunity and minimize injustice. Violent crime has ravaged too many of our communities, disproportionately so in communities of color. No one can learn, work or thrive if she lives in fear of violence. We are committed to working with grantees and partners nationwide to explore and identify strategies and solutions to mitigate this ongoing crisis.

“Our work in Baltimore with Persistent Surveillance Systems was one such project. It attempted to use aerial investigative research to improve the Baltimore Police Department’s ability to solve serious and violent crimes and to make its community safer. We engaged with community partners, law enforcement and researchers to gauge the feasibility and effectiveness of the proposed program. After 11 months of implementation, evaluation and preliminary research, we have decided against further investments in the program at this time. Therefore, Arnold Ventures will not fund the aerial investigative effort proposed in St. Louis.

“Our pursuit of innovative approaches that reduce crime and its root causes will continue. We will continue to explore a wide range of strategies to help law enforcement better achieve its goals of safeguarding public safety while fostering community trust.”

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