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Philanthropists won’t fund St. Louis aerial surveillance unless public money also is committed

Philanthropists won’t fund St. Louis aerial surveillance unless public money also is committed


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 — A Texas-based philanthropy says it won’t consider paying for an aerial surveillance plan to help St. Louis police fight violent crime unless there’s some public money kicked in as well.

Arnold Ventures, in an email to the sponsor of pending St. Louis legislation, also said the level of public dollars must be consistent with “a demonstration of strong political support” and “strong community support” for the plan. The organization is funded by John and Laura Arnold, a billionaire couple from Houston.

The email, sent Dec. 17 to Alderman Tom Oldenburg and released to the Post-Dispatch on Wednesday by Arnold Ventures, also says the organization first wants to review a yet-to-be-issued interim Rand Corporation report on the results of an overhead surveillance pilot program it funded in Baltimore.

“Most important for you is that we will not consider supporting a replication (in another city) unless the findings in Baltimore are compelling,” Jeremy Travis, executive vice president for criminal justice for the organization, said in the email.

The email also was sent to Ross McNutt, owner of Persistent Surveillance Systems, the Ohio-based company that ran the six-month Baltimore program that ended Oct. 31, and wants to do the same here.

Oldenburg, D-16th Ward, on Thursday confirmed receiving the email and said McNutt believes there are other potential non-city funding sources to cover the full cost of the three-year trial program, which McNutt estimates as $7.5 million to $10 million.

He pointed out that his bill, which directs Mayor Lyda Krewson or her successor and Comptroller Darlene Green to execute a contract with McNutt’s company, requires that it be funded solely by non-city sources.

“I only want to pursue this if it’s free to the city, period,” Oldenburg said. “If we don’t get (outside) funding for this contract, it doesn’t happen.”

An aldermanic committee on Tuesday voted to advance Oldenburg’s bill to the full Board of Aldermen.

Supporters say the aerial surveillance measure is needed to help police cope with the city’s serious violent crime problem. Opponents warn that it could jeopardize civil liberties of average citizens and that the videos obtained could be abused by police.

McNutt said Thursday he still hoped that the “fantastic” Arnold organization could be convinced to pay for a St. Louis program without any city money being used. “This is a good fit for what they do,” he said.

However, he said there are “other organizations we have been in contact with” as well but he did not identify any. He also said the city also could potentially seek federal Justice Department grants.

He said perhaps a local company such as Clayton-based Centene Corp., which paid for a recently released study of the city and St. Louis County police departments, could be approached to help out.

The St. Louis camera proposal calls for flights to occur up to 18 hours a day, using three planes. The aircraft would use wide-angle cameras to capture images of up to 32 square miles a second.

Once the company is notified through a 911 call or a shots-fired notification, it can zoom in to the site of a reported crime, then track people or vehicles traveling from the scene to other locations.

McNutt says the cameras can only track pixels and not identify individuals and would be used in conjunction with existing street-level cameras used by city police in investigations.

The email sent by Arnold Ventures also emphasizes that it has made no commitment to fund the St. Louis plan.

McNutt, since his initial appearance before an aldermanic committee in October 2019, has suggested that the Arnolds would be a likely funding source.

John Arnold is a former energy hedge fund manager who retired as a billionaire in 2012 at age 38. Laura Arnold is a lawyer and former oil company executive.

The Arnolds have bankrolled causes across the political spectrum, from conservative-leaning efforts to expand school-choice programs and overhaul public pensions to liberal-oriented initiatives to tax soft drinks and carbon emissions.

In 2018, they donated to the Clean Missouri initiative approved by voters statewide that changed how state legislative district boundaries are redrawn every decade. Key parts were undone in a revised plan pushed by state Republicans that was passed in November.

At an aldermanic committee hearing Tuesday, several committee members from high-crime wards spoke passionately about their support for the program as a way to help their constituents deal with homicides and other violent incidents.

Most of those testifying opposed the measure, including representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union and the state affiliate of Amnesty International. Oldenburg countered that, saying he knows of various victims of serious crimes who support the measure.

Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner, in an email sent to a committee member that was read aloud at the meeting, said she had concerns about the proposed program and said passage would be “premature.”

Among other things, she said the plan “chooses unproven technology” over investing in people and programs effective in building trust in the community. She also said it could chill “free movement” in the city without a vigorous discussion in impacted areas.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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