Aerial surveillance contract faces more roadblocks in St. Louis

City’s attorney questions legality of contract; Persistent Surveillance under investigation in Ohio

St. Louis City Hall

The St. Louis Board of Aldermen is set to vote today on whether to enter into a contract with an aerial surveillance company to help combat crime in the city. 

But the controversial contract may be running into a trio of roadblocks.

The city’s attorney argues that the contract may be illegal. The company in question, Persistent Surveillance Services, is under investigation in Ohio, where the company is based. And the company’s owner is catching flak for donations to President Donald Trump.

All this could play out at 10 a.m., when the aldermen meet and could give the contract the board’s initial approval. 

Most pressing, those close to the issue say, is the opinion of the city’s attorney, Michael Garvin.

“I do not believe an alderman possesses authority to negotiate a contract, attach it to a board bill, and require that city officials execute the contract,” Garvin wrote in a Jan. 13 letter to Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia.

The board bill in question got its first round of aldermanic approval last week. 

The bill proposes to approve a contract with Persistent Surveillance Services to fly three surveillance planes over the city for up to 18 hours to help police solve crimes. 

If aldermen give the bill initial approval today it would still need one more board vote to head to the mayor’s desk.

Alderman Tom Oldenburg, the bill’s sponsor, said he and the company’s lobbying attorney, David Sweeney, disagree with Garvin’s opinion that the bill violates the city charter.

“I’m not at all shocked that the mayor’s lawyer is saying that a contract like this is solely in the power of the mayor, and not the Board of Aldermen,” Oldenburg said.

Supportive aldermen say the program will address the city’s high homicide rate — which is among the highest in the nation and the highest it’s been in the city in 50 years. The planes will help police track down suspects and witnesses of crimes, supporters said. 

However, other aldermen have raised concerns about potential civil rights violations from targeting minority communities, and the city not having proper privacy laws in place to address this. They also questioned why the contract is being executed without the public support or coordination from the city’s public safety leaders or mayor.

When asked if Mayor Lyda Krewson was supportive of entering into a contract with the company, her spokesman only said that Krewson does not support using public funds for the project.

The program is estimated to cost up to $11 million a year. The city would leave it up to Persistent Surveillance to find funding.

“The bill still has a ways to go through the legislative process and could change,” said Krewson’s spokesman, Jacob Long, “and we’ll continue to listen to the conversation happening at the board.”

Garvin also said the bill opens up the city to potential lawsuits challenging the contract’s legality.

“If you are doing something against the city charter, you shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it,” said Sara Baker, of the ACLU of Missouri, in response to Garvin’s opinion. “It’s called accountability.”

Ohio investigation

Persistent Surveillance is facing another potential legal hurdle. 

The Ohio Homeland Security Office has opened an investigation into Ross McNutt and his company, following a complaint — obtained by The Independent — that he does not have the proper private investigator license. 

In Ohio, private investigator companies must obtain a license to advertise or contract their services with law enforcement agencies, according to a spokesman with the department.

The spokesman also confirmed that Ross McNutt does not have this license.

According to the complaint, McNutt had exchanged emails with the Dayton Police in 2014 in attempts to secure a contract with the agency.

McNutt told The Independent that he never ended up getting a contract with the Dayton police, and he believes the statute of limitations would prevent him from facing a penalty — which could be a criminal misdemeanor charge.

Missouri also requires a license for private investigators, but state law makes an exception for independent contractors employed by any government agency, McNutt said.

Garvin told The Independent that he doesn’t believe the Ohio investigation would prevent McNutt from entering into a contract with the city.

McNutt has also come under some criticism for donating more than $6,000 to President Trump’s campaign between 2019 and October 2020. McNutt said the donations weren’t political but “an act of survival.” 

“I donated then because there was a huge effort to defund the police,” McNutt said. “I’m going to support people who support police. I’ve seen too many people murdered. I don’t do politics.”

City leaders distance themselves

One of the biggest concerns for the mayor and the public safety director, Oldenburg said, is that they don’t want Persistent Surveillance to have access to the Real Time Crime Center (RTCC) — the city’s surveillance hub.

The RTCC has access to 539 video cameras owned and maintained by the city, as well as 566 privately-owned federated cameras for places like the Central West End and other business districts. Some of the police cameras can zoom in from two blocks away and display faces clearly.

Oldenburg said he is introducing a floor substitute on Friday that will ensure the contractors only operate their own highly-pixelated aerial footage, where faces are not recognizable.

If police ask for the information, a Persistent Surveillance analyst will provide it to detectives.

“It’s a little clumsier, but it still will be a helpful tool,” Oldenburg said.

He also put in language that ensures the city will not fund the program from taxpayers’ dollars. The contract will be “null and void” if McNutt cannot find a funding source, which has not been secured.

If a contract goes through, Oldenburg expects that the ACLU will file a lawsuit against the city, as they did Baltimore. And he acknowledges that other lawsuits are likely.

Garvin said that the contract includes insurance requirements and an indemnity provision, or language to make sure Persistent Surveillance has enough insurance to cover these legal costs.  

However, Garvin added that if the company goes bankrupt, the city would be on the hook for litigation costs.

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.

According to Oldenburg, the company’s communication with the public was one of Police Chief John Hayden’s main concerns. 

Hayden and the city’s public safety director weren’t present to testify or answer questions at the Jan. 5 hearing on the bill. 

There, aldermen voted 6-1 to pass the bill out of the public safety committee.

When asked about working with the surveillance service, a police spokesperson told The Independent, “We were not involved with the contractor selection or the drafting of the ordinance relative to this.”

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