ST. LOUIS • When a 911 call comes in, St. Louis police now may be able to see the scene before responding officers have time to arrive.
It’s part of the Real Time Crime Center, opened Thursday to bring together an array of electronic resources — including a network of public and private surveillance cameras that could put eyes on a location within seconds.
Eight officers and a sergeant will run the around-the-clock operation inside police headquarters, at 1915 Olive Street. They will have access to data from cameras, license plate readers, red light cameras, hot-spot crime mapping and the ShotSpotter microphone system that can track the source of gunfire.
“Today is a great day for law enforcement and a bad day for criminals in the city of St. Louis,” Chief Sam Dotson declared.
But the concept is not without controversy.
John Chasnoff, longtime member of the activist organization Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression, called it “a spy hub for the whole city of St. Louis.” He was among about 20 protesters gathered outside headquarters as officials toured the center.
“This is a big step toward mass surveillance of the city’s population,” Chasnoff complained. “People going about their business who have given no indication they have committed an offense are still being watched by their government and police.”
Dotson sees the center as the linchpin of a safer community, helping police both fight and prevent crime. It puts his department in line with dozens of police agencies with similar capabilities, including Chicago, Houston and Kansas City.
The system already connects with the St. Louis Port Authority, Locust Business District, South Grand Business Association and street department. Donations from the Police Foundation, asset forfeiture money, a federal port security grant and partnership with Motorola Solutions paid for the approximately $435,000 effort.
Dotson said only outdoor cameras with views in the “public domain” would be used.
Mayor Francis Slay said the city had policies to govern how cameras were used and data were retained.
The center has access to 140 cameras now, but Dotson envisions a network encompassing the surveillance capabilities of many neighborhood associations and businesses. Chicago police have access to 10,000 cameras, about 3,000 of them publicly owned, the chief said.
When a call comes in, a crime center officer can link to the nearest camera to try to get a suspect description and other information to instruct those en route.
Images of suspects, stolen cars and other details can be transmitted to laptop computers in patrol cars. Using a license number seen on camera, license plate readers could track the culprits as they move about the city.
The system may be a boon in the fight against one of the city’s most vexing crime problems: car break-ins. Thieves know that policy prevents police from chasing them. But pictures may identify them for arrest later.
Better descriptions than witnesses alone can provide will mean better officer safety and more certain arrests, said Capt. Angela Coonce, the Intelligence Division commander.
Access to private cameras also means not having to wait for a business to open to examine its recorded images, Lt. Brent Feig said. “We’re really leveraging the public space,” he said.
Jeanine Molloff of Overland attended Thursday’s protest and expressed concern that the participation of business interests would influence how police patrol the city. “When the police department accepts private money for public services, it creates a pay-to-play system, whereby the rich get preferential treatment in the form of better police service,” she said.
Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, is skeptical of the way it was planned. “Maybe everyone will say the policies the city has drafted are great, but there should be a process for review and public comment first,” he said.
Mittman cautioned that once private cameras were used by the government, they must be treated as public cameras, operated in accordance with the Constitution.
“Now they can follow you, keep data, store it and go back and search through it, so we’re going from what might seem like a benign observance of a public square to a Big Brother 24/7 surveillance society,” Mittman suggested.
Dotson said he understood those concerns, but he insisted the cameras would stick to public spaces. He said officials were mindful that courts had ruled that the government cannot use cameras in places where people have a “reasonable expectation of privacy.”
He said civil liberties advocates might want to live in the shadow of George Orwell’s cautionary “1984” look at government intrusion. “But this is the reality of today.”