St. Louis once again set to debate surveillance accountability bill

Mayor Tishaura Jones stresses importance of looking at racial equity in surveillance programs

By: - June 3, 2021 2:43 pm

The Real Time Crime Center in St. Louis (Photo by Rebecca Rivas/The Missouri Independent)

The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department is one of about a dozen departments nationwide that have a “real time crime center,” or a high-tech surveillance hub.

There, police officers can access about 1,100 cameras located throughout the city — some of which have the power to zoom in and identify people’s faces from more than a block away. Others are license plate reader cameras posted on traffic lights. And about 500 of those are cameras that private groups own and voluntarily feed into the center.

A handful of police officers work inside a room with a wall full of screens, locating footage to supply information to officers on the ground. 

When the center opened in 2015, city leaders were so excited about its crime-fighting possibilities  — but admittedly less attention was put towards drafting a privacy policy. 

Now six years later, city residents still don’t have a clear path to find out how the city’s surveillance programs are being used, how much they cost and what impact they’re having on crime and residents’ lives. 

However next week, the city’s Board of Aldermen will begin debating a bill that aims to increase transparency at the crime center and with other tax-funded surveillance programs. With support of the new mayor, the issue has renewed momentum and will likely pass. 

In 2015, then-mayor Francis Slay’s administration issued a privacy policy that they acknowledged to community leaders was essentially a rough draft. Soon after the center opened, Slay’s team brought together leaders from the police and streets departments, as well as members of the ACLU and a couple aldermen to write a more comprehensive policy. 

But the final draft stalled out on the former police chief’s desk and was never implemented.

Two years later, former city Alderman Terry Kennedy attempted to pass a board bill that would require city entities to provide a “surveillance plan” every year with details about how they use their surveillance technology — and whether or not these cameras are targeting and causing harm to communities of color. It failed largely because some aldermen felt it would make the process too lengthy if they wanted to install cameras in their own wards.

Every year since, the bill has been renewed but has failed.

In May, Alderwoman Annie Rice introduced a bill that will pick up the torch, and it’s her second time doing so. Some of the opponents’ concerns — including who reviews the surveillance plans — have been addressed, though others criticisms remain. 

Mayor Tishaura Jones said residents deserve to have oversight of this technology, and it needs to be done with an equity lens. 

“This isn’t just about accountable technology,” Jones said. “This is about racial equity and ensuring our Black and Brown people can walk in their own neighborhoods without being recorded or mistaken for somebody else.”

A ‘black box’

At the Real Time Crime Center, a handful of St. Louis police officers work inside a room with a wall full of screens, locating footage to supply information to officers on the ground. (Photo by Rebecca Rivas/The Missouri Independent)

As part of the city’s 2015 privacy policy, the police and streets departments already provide an annual audit to the city’s operations director regarding where their cameras are located and how many they have. These reports are not posted on the city’s website, but they are public record.

So, the annual report that Rice’s bill calls for is not a new practice. What the bill asks for is more details — including how the surveillance equipment is being deployed, the specific impacts of the surveillance programs and how the data is being stored. 

In 2015, the police department also passed its own policy about how to address privacy issues. Yet, it’s been nearly impossible to determine – as the police department repeatedly claimed – if the Real Time Crime Center is meeting its own protocols for safeguarding privacy, according to a 2018 investigation by the St. Louis American and Type Investigations

After months of repeated requests through Missouri’s Sunshine Law for information about who has access to the surveillance information and multiple requests for interviews, the police department did not provide any portion of the internal documentation required by its own privacy policy on sharing the center’s information ‒ including a log of all records requests made by people from within and outside the police department.

However, a map created as part of that investigation also showed the city’s cameras are not located in the neighborhoods that have the most profound problems with violent crime, specifically homicides. 

Alderwoman Cara Spencer, who sits on the aldermanic public safety committee that would be tasked with reviewing the surveillance plans, has repeatedly described the police department’s surveillance program as a “black box.”

Spencer and other committee members would have the opportunity to ask questions of the police department at the annual public hearings.

The bill also asks city entities to respond to questions about targeting specific geographic areas and communities. “What measures will be taken to ensure such targeting is racially and economically neutral?” the bill states. Another question is: “What measures will be used to avoid biases in surveillance targeting and data collection?”

Alicia Hernández, a community organizer with the ACLU of Missouri, is concerned about governments using the equipment to “spy on residents” who haven’t been implicated in criminal activity.

“The current laws do not protect you from these violations of your privacy and civil rights,” Hernández said. “We need guardrails and transparency in place as this rapidly encroaching, untested and unregulated technology sweeps across the nation.”

But the legislation doesn’t necessarily have guardrails. While it requires the city departments — and potentially the taxing and business districts — to provide information and answer questions about their programs to a committee, the bill doesn’t set any benchmarks to meet. If the plan doesn’t meet the expectations of the public safety committee, then they can vote it down. 

But as seen with tax abatement proposals, aldermen don’t tend to scrutinize plans when they don’t have specific benchmarks. 

“It does put more of a burden on the public,” Rice said. “And it does put more burden on those public safety committee members to do a little bit more of their own outside thinking than they would if they had a policy in front of them.”

These benchmarks are something that might develop out of the public hearings, said John Chasnoff, a member of the surveillance watchdog coalition Privacy Watch and who was part of the group that the mayor’s team invited to draft a more comprehensive policy in 2015.

“The overarching goal is to create a situation where the community itself is able to decide what its comfort level is,” Chasnoff said. “And what safeguards do we need to have in place to be comfortable? That becomes, with this bill, a community decision after a very open and transparent conversation.”

Business districts

The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department’s crime center can access about 1,100 cameras located throughout the city. (Photo by Wiley Price/The St. Louis American)

The bill could also potentially apply to the city’s taxing districts — including community improvement districts — that use sales or property tax revenue to buy cameras. 

The Central West End Neighborhood Security Initiative (CWE-NSI) accounts for nearly 300 of the privately-owned cameras that stream into the crime center. The CWE-NSI’s office sits in one of the more affluent neighborhoods in the city. There, security staff only review footage if they hear about an incident from the police department, said Jim Whyte, who leads the office. 

The initiative is largely funded through property tax revenue from the neighborhoods it serves. Whyte calls it “passive surveillance” because his team doesn’t watch the footage in real time. 

In the past, Whyte has been opposed to the bill because he had concerns about a citizen advisory committee being the entity reviewing and scrutinizing the surveillance plans. 

Yet, he’s supportive of the overall idea of the ordinance. 

“I understand the need for oversight of city agencies,” Whyte said. “I support the purpose of having a way to understand what technology is being used, why it’s being used, and where in the city it’s being used.”

However, there are parts of the bill that give him pause, including a clause that states evidence should be deleted if it has been collected from unsanctioned surveillance equipment. He would like the city counselor’s office to review that portion.

Whyte also wishes that his organization had been more involved in the drafting of the bill, but believes there is a chance to tweak it in committee to “come up with a good piece of law.” 

Rice said in response, “We can work through some of their concerns, but accountability with tax money and public surveillance is important, and we can appropriately include them in this needed oversight.”

The CWE-NSI is by far the group that has the most cameras, said Rachel Witt, executive director of the South Grand Community Improvement District, which is a taxing district. 

Most of the other districts have gifted cameras to the police department and don’t have access to them. The aldermen representing these neighborhoods have also purchased cameras through their ward capital improvements funds, meaning they are city property.

Witt hopes the aldermen aren’t going to regularly prevent the South Grand group from putting up cameras if they don’t approve the plans. But she doesn’t believe that’s the Board of Aldermen’s intent.

“They just want transparency,” Witt said, “and to have an understanding where these cameras are going and how they’re being used. I think it’s something that’s extremely needed. I think the police department would agree.”

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Rebecca Rivas
Rebecca Rivas

Rebecca Rivas is a multimedia reporter who covers Missouri's cannabis industry. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, she has been reporting in Missouri since 2001, including more than a decade as senior reporter and video producer at the St. Louis American, the nation’s leading African-American newspaper.