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St. Louis County Council goes on record opposing aerial surveillance plan in St. Louis

St. Louis County Council goes on record opposing aerial surveillance plan in St. Louis

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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)

CLAYTON — As St. Louis lawmakers consider authorizing a controversial aerial surveillance program in the city, the St. Louis County Council is telling city officials they don’t want any of those planes spying on the county.

The council on Tuesday voted 6-1 for a resolution sponsored by Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, D-5th District, calling on the city to guarantee planes wouldn’t cross into the county and record data there, citing concerns over privacy and infringement on civil liberties.

County officials have not been provided details of the proposal, though potential flight plans for the planes that would be deployed appear to extend into north St. Louis County, Clancy said.

“We are not being communicated with about the possible implications to St. Louis County residents,” she said during the Tuesday council meeting. “We need to know how this impacts us.”

Councilman Tim Fitch, R-3rd District, was the lone vote against the resolution, arguing the surveillance program was unlikely to gain approval without an identified source of funding.

The county action, which carries no legal weight, comes as the Board of Aldermen considers final approval for a bill that would direct Mayor Lyda Krewson or her successor to contract with Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems to fly surveillance airplanes up to 18 hours a day over the city. Aldermen voted 15-14 in January to give the proposal preliminary approval.

Backers say the aerial cameras could track the path of suspects and vehicles from key crime scenes and help in police investigations after the city recorded 262 murders last year, the highest total since 1993.

Opponents have called for alternative efforts to fight crime and warned the plan posed a threat to civil liberties because the cameras could track every movement on a wide swath of city streets at any given time.

The bill requires PSS to secure private funding to cover the estimated $5 million cost.

PSS was involved in a privately funded pilot program to test the technology last year in Baltimore, but that city decided not to renew the program after preliminary reports showed it played a small role in helping solve crimes.

Baltimore’s decision not to renew the program and the uncertainty over funding a similar effort in St. Louis were among concerns about the contract raised Wednesday during a meeting of the Aldermanic Rules Committee.

The committee, which is reviewing the bill before sending the proposal to the full board for a final vote, questioned St. Louis police Chief John Hayden about the proposal for more than an hour before recessing until Thursday.

Hayden told the committee that he is open to experimenting with the technology after speaking with Baltimore police, but the chief said he had questions about the exact level of control his department would have over the program, and whether police would be expected to pay for ancillary costs in certain cases, including compiling public record requests of the surveillance data.

“Certainly the police department would be open to trying to see exactly what value a program like this would entail, it’s just that there are some uncertain areas that really aren’t covered that would tell you how much this would cost,” Hayden said.

Hayden said he would review the latest version of the bill and the committee’s concerns with attorneys for the police department and the city.

Alderman Tom Oldenburg, the bill sponsor, said opponents of the bill on the rules committee are trying to delay the measure.

“These are little things people are trying to pick at,” Oldenburg said.

He also pushed back against the council’s resolution on Wednesday, accusing Clancy of using the proposal to appeal to political progressives who have been critical of the proposal.

Oldenburg said the planes’ cameras would be turned off once they cross the city-county border, and all data they collect would be subject to an audit, Oldenburg said.

“This is more the politics of Councilwoman Lisa Clancy wanting to be in the progressive limelight,” said Oldenburg, D-16th Ward.

At the council meeting Tuesday, Fitch said that he considered the bill dead before voting against the resolution opposing the measure.

“Are you aware that this initiative is dead in the city and elsewhere in the United States,” Fitch, a former chief of St. Louis County Police, told Clancy. “There is no funding for it.”

Clancy said the resolution was necessary until the bill is guaranteed not to gain final approval.

“Until it is dropped I consider it very much still alive,” she said.

Councilwoman Rita Heard Days, D-1st District, said she outright opposed any proposal for surveillance planes.

“I have had conversations with aldermen in the city … and I’m absolutely not in favor of any kind of aerial surveillance,” Days said. “This resolution would just solidify that in the perspective of St. Louis County.”

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Reporter covering breaking news and crime by night. Born in Algeria but grew up in St. Louis. Previously reported for The Associated Press in Jackson, Mississippi and at the Wichita Eagle in Wichita, Kansas.

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