Controversial aerial surveillance proposal in St. Louis moves forward

Ross McNutt, owner of Persistent Surveillance Services, presented his aerial surveillance program on January 5 to the St. Louis aldermanic public safety committee.

St. Louis aldermen have advanced a bill proposing a three-year contract with a controversial aerial-surveillance program that claims to help solve and prevent murders. 

After more than four hours of testimony Tuesday, an aldermanic committee voted 6-1 to approve a contract with Persistent Surveillance Services for the company to fly three surveillance planes over the city up to 18 hrs a day.

Nearly all those testifying were opposed and raised concerns about the program, including the St. Louis Public School Board President Dorothy Rohde-Collins and Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner. 

“This program chooses unproven technology over investment in people and programs that have proven to be effective in terms of building trust in the community,” Gardner wrote in an email to some aldermen, which was read at the hearing.

The bill’s sponsor, Alderman Tom Oldenburg, said he had several family members of murder victims lined up to speak in favor of the program, but they decided that the process would be too painful.

Aldermen who voted in favor of the bill said their constituents support the program because they are tired of the murders, which reached 262 last year. The city’s homicide rate in 2020 was the highest it’s been in the past 50 years.

“You all have cameras, you have plenty of protection in your communities,” said Alderwoman Pam Boyd, who represents a majority Black ward in North St. Louis. “But how do you explain to a grandmother why her 5-year-old granddaughter has seen five murders in her community?”

Local rapper Cedric “C-Sharp” Redmon has been a strong supporter of the program since Persistent Surveillance owner Ross McNutt approached the city last year. He believes the aerial footage will be invaluable in helping to track potential suspects of violent crime, without being “so in your face as hiring more police officers or hot-spot policing.”

It’s time to respond to the homicide rate,” he said.

In October, Baltimore completed a six-month pilot program, paid for by Texas philanthropists Laura and John Arnold, through their organization Arnold Ventures, to study whether the surveillance planes could help lower Baltimore’s violent crime rates. 

However in November, Baltimore police threatened to end the program because they claimed Persistent Surveillance had committed “serious breaches of confidentiality” in how they shared the footage with members of the media.

Through the St. Louis contract, Persistent Surveillance would have access to all the city’s nearly 550 city-owned surveillance cameras that are streamed to St. Louis’ Real Time Crime Center (RTCC). A October 2019 joint-investigation by the St. Louis American and Type Investigations found that a majority of these cameras are in the city’s business districts.

St. Louis camera map
This map of city-owned surveillance camera locations and 2018 homicides offers a striking visual. Each black X marks a homicide in 2018. Most murders in City of St. Louis that year occurred in North St. Louis. Most cameras listed on public audits from the police and streets departments are located downtown, far from where the majority of homicides took place. Cameras are clustered in business districts, where incomes tend to be higher, and where more residents are white.

A study, paid for by Arnold Ventures, on Persistent Surveillance’s impact in Baltimore is still on-going, McNutt said, but initial numbers show that the program has helped solve more homicides. 

Sarah Baker of ACLU of Missouri pushed back, saying that is being funded by the investors of the program.

“We are giving up a lot to use this technology,” she said, “and we need to know if it’s effective.”

Addressing concerns of privacy, McNutt explained that the planes’ footage is so pixelated it does not identify people by race or gender, etc. If a crime occurs, then Persistent Surveillance will track suspects — which look like dots on a screen — to find out where they went after the incident. Then tapping into the city’s high-quality video cameras, they can potentially identify suspects’ faces and characteristics.  

However, according to the contract, their reach is not limited to suspects. Analysts can also track and identify possible victims, witnesses, and individuals who associate with suspects in investigations. Once analysts “determine a vehicle or person to no longer be of interest to the investigation, no further tracking of that vehicle or person is permitted.”

This kind of vague tracking parameters has alarmed privacy advocates, who said they are concerned about how this would impact minority communities who are already racially-profiled and unfairly tracked by law enforcement.

“Black and brown communities and immigrants, regardless of immigration status, are among those most vulnerable to surveillance like Persistent Surveillance Systems,” said Alicia Hernandez, a community organizer with the ACLU, who was speaking on behalf of the advocacy group Privacy Watch. “The state is watching all of us, but it’s not watching everyone equally.”

Many who testified raised questions about what the private company planned on doing with this surveillance information outside of solving murders. 

Alderman Dan Guenther read outloud from an article, where McNutt was quoted saying that he is considering marketing his company’s aerial footage to auto companies, to help them determine which drivers are at fault in accidents and whether the claims are valid. 

“We protect this information as if it’s our own children,” McNutt responded.

He added that the oversight of the program is written into the contract.

Alderman Bret Narayan asked Oldenburg who was involved in drafting the contract. Oldenburg explained that it was a lobbyist attorney from a downtown law firm, McNutt and himself. When asked if a city counselor has looked over the contract to ensure the city would not be liable for a lawsuit, Oldenburg said no.

Alderwoman Annie Rice asked if Oldenburg had run the bill by the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee, which includes representatives from the city’s administration, circuit court, public defender’s and prosecutor’s offices. He said he hadn’t.

Rice is the latest alderman to try and pass a bill that would update the city’s privacy policies. 

Former Alderman Terry Kennedy, who previously led the city’s aldermanic Black Caucus and public safety committee, made several attempts but was only able to pass a resolution calling for an audit of city’s surveillance systems

The American’s January 2019 investigation found that the city’s current privacy law was only meant to be a placeholder when the RTCC launched nearly six years ago. Kennedy has argued that the current law does not protect the privacy of the city’s most vulnerable residents.

Rice took up the torch in early 2020. While Rice’s privacy bill easily passed out of committee in July, her bill is currently stalled at the full board. Oldenburg stated in a resolution this summer said he would work with Rice to pass privacy legislation before attempting to approve an aerial surveillance contract. 

But that has not happened, several aldermen testified.

Many residents and advocates expressed concern that the police chief and public safety director did not attend the hearing to explain how it would impact the city’s public-safety plan. Several aldermen said that they wanted the committee to wait until they could hear from the police chief, city counselor, circuit attorney and others.

Oldenburg said that Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards told him that the plan needed to “start with the legislative body,” and that addressing the murders was too important to wait for another hearing. 

Alderwoman Megan Green, who appeared to be frustrated during the hearing, said that St. Louis suffers from “silver-bullet-project syndrome.”  

“We chase every shiny object put in front of us hoping for a quick fix to our crime issues,” Green said. “It detracts from the harder work of addressing the root causes of our issues.”

St. Louis Public School Board President Dorothy Rohde-Collins testified that there are many aspects of aerial surveillance that she finds “deeply disturbing.” However, she highlighted McNutt’s suggestions to enter high schools and talk to students about the “spy planes” as a way to deter them from committing crimes.

“Targeting high school students in schools with messages about surveillance to scare them into obeying the law is not based in educational theory or psychology,” she said. “This might have the opposite effect by creating a culture of mistrust of government and police.”

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