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City is offered free ‘eye in the sky’ crime camera system

CITY HALL – Some time soon, a man with a semiautomatic weapon may think he got away with murder gunning down a 6-year-old child in front of a home in north St. Louis – but he won’t.

High up, a small aircraft has been watching him, potential witnesses and everybody else in the area, with a technology similar to Google Earth.

Analysts, who also use ground-level cameras, track a dot that appears to be the gunman back an hour and and forward three hours to a specific house identified as his hideout. Detectives show up at a house and get a confession out of him.

This scenario is not only technologically possible, it is being considered right now by the St. Louis Board of Aldermen.  A committee heard a presentation about it this week.

The price for St. Louis? Not a penny for the first three years. Instead, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation discussed the possibilities of paying the $1.6 million to $2.5 million yearly million cost, so long as they can get support and a memorandum of understanding from everyone involved.

Some who heard of the plan at a meeting of the Board of Aldermen’s Public Safety Committee on Tuesday said it could be a perfect way to cut the city’s high crime rate. But one elected city official, Eighth Ward Alderwoman Annie Rice, had reservations.

“A private company who filmed everyone in an entire city for a year without permission now wants to come here?” Rice said on Twitter. “I’m starting at NO, convince me otherwise that this isn’t a terrible idea.”

Ross McNutt, founder of Persistent Surveillance Systems and a leader of the Community Support Program, spoke of the possibilities for the program at Tuesday’s safety committee meeting.

McNutt said Wednesday that the program was offered in Baltimore for three months. Against the wishes of the Community Support Program, that city’s police department didn’t tell the public about it, he said.

In a letter addressed to St. Louis’ leaders and citizens, McNutt said major cities received the Community Support Program as a way to help them solve and reduce major crimes.

“Our efforts are aimed at helping cities with high crime rates and particularly shootings and murders,” McNutt said. He is seeking acceptance from all portions of the community.

McNutt said his program was a way to address FBI statistics for 2017 that show that St. Louis is leading the nation with 66.1 murders per 100,000 people.
McNutt also said the ACLU had reviewed the program and found it didn’t violate privacy concerns. Cameras in the airplanes don’t recognize people, but pixels (dots) for each person.

McNutt distributed a fact sheet that said the U.S. Supreme Court had declared airborne motion imagery legal. In one case, the court said, “What a person knowingly exposes to the public, even in his own home or office, is not a subject of Fourth Amendment protection.”

Addressing the practice of searching for marijuana fields from the air as an example, the court said it was all right for police to spot marijuana from an aircraft in navigable airspace, because anybody could see the same thing from an airplane. It wasn’t reasonable to presume that the marijuana garden was protected from observation.

If both Baltimore and St. Louis want the program for three years, most likely one city will be started first and the other will follow.

Twenty-Second Ward Alderman Jeffrey Boyd, a member of the public safety committee, said the potential for the system was incredible. And he downplayed worries about privacy.

“I don’t care if people have concerns about ‘eyes on you.’ It is a deterrent,” Boyd said. “We have to raise the conscious level of people to tell that people are watching.”

To give coverage throughout the city, three planes would take one picture a second. In 13 days in Baltimore, the planes and cameras on the ground took pictures of five murders and 18 shootings. They tracked 72 cars involved in the shootings and 44 final locations.

Systems such as this have been effective internationally in places including Iraq and Afghanistan, according to McNutt.

John Chasnoff, a local activist on police issues and a member of Privacy Watch STL, said he had serious concerns about the program.
“The is different from the body camera contracts, where the city would own the data. This is stored on company servers and owned by the company, so we have very little control then over how that data is used for commercial and other purposes, and I think that raises a lot of alarms,” Chasnoff said.

“This company has gone into other cities in the past and has been kicked out of Baltimore and kicked out of Los Angeles. So they don’t have a great track record for getting buy-in,” Chasnoff said.

Chasnoff also said he is worried about how the system could track how people go to doctors, to churches and to political protests.

Mayor Lyda Krewson said she had scheduled a meeting to talk to people from the program.

One person who praised the effort at Tuesday’s meeting is state Rep. Ron Hicks, R-St. Charles County, who chairs the state House Special Committee on Homeland Security.

“As soon as they see we have a system like this, the criminals might think twice,” Hicks said.

Jim Merkel

southsidemerkel@gmail.com Born and raised in the St. Louis area, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of five books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. The latest is Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis with Miss Jenny the Cat. For more about Jim, visit www.jimmerkelthewriter.com.

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