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Aerial surveillance plan gets initial OK from aldermen

CITY HALL – A four-hour debate Friday over a proposed eye in the sky to catch lawbreakers pitted aldermen demanding action against murders against others worried about a loss of privacy.

When it was over, the Board of Aldermen voted 15-14 to give initial approval to a system to provide aerial surveillance of the city as a way to catch lawbreakers in the act. The plan may come up for final action at this week’s meeting.

Under the plan, the city would sign a contract with Persistent Surveillance Systems of Xenia, Ohio, to have its light planes circle parts of St. Louis for an experimental period of 18 months. Cameras on the planes would spot suspicious activity; donors, not the city, would pay for the service.

Sixteenth Ward Alderman Thomas Oldenburg, the sponsor of the bill, told aldermen that they should consider carefully the fact that 262 people were murdered in the city last year and that 20 of them were children.

“We must push ourselves beyond sympathy or hallowed empathy,” Oldenburg said. “I would want justice. I wouldn’t want it to happen to another family.”

Oldenburg said he would argue that solving murders is part of an antipoverty agenda.

“Teachers can’t teach, kids can’t learn when they’re surrounded by violence,” he said.

Sixth Ward Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia agreed that crime was out of control. But she and others spoke nervously about the idea that a plane could watch everything they were doing.

She also said the St. Louis Board of Public Service, rather than the Board of Aldermen, actually approved contracts. 

Another alderwoman, Heather Navarro of the 28th Ward, said there was no way to get out of the contract if the city didn’t like it. 

Twenty-Fourth Ward Alderman Bret Narayan said that although the program itself might be free, potentially expensive lawsuits over it wouldn’t be. He called it “a dystopian, totalitarian way of monitoring every citizen and every worker in the city of St. Louis.” 

But 21st Ward Alderman John Collins-Muhammad brought the subject back to lost lives.

“We’re not talking about crime when we’re talking about aerial surveillance, we’re talking about cold-blooded murder,” he said. “Murder is the real problem in the 21st Ward.”

Collins-Muhammad also pointed out that people were already being followed as they carried phones with them.

“If they want to fly over my house all day, that’s good,” he said.

Nineteenth Ward Alderwoman Marlene Davis agreed.

“Please tell the truth about privacy. You have none,” Davis said. “Nowhere do you have privacy.”

On the other side, several aldermen spoke of what they saw as the dark side of an eye in the sky. 

Ninth Ward Alderman Dan Guenther said the city should focus on efforts such as recreation centers and Cure Violence, which intervenes in potentially violent situations before it gets out of hand. Aerial surveillance is a military situation, he said. 

“Are we going to militarize our police department more than it is?” Guenther asked. 

“We are in a very scary place in our country when we start eroding these constitutional rights,” 15th Ward Alderwoman Megan Green asserted. 

 Eighth Ward Alderwoman Annie Rice agreed.

“This is pushing us toward the situation of a police state,” she maintained.

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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