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Police surveillance bill is put on hold

CITY HALL – A bill to regulate new police surveillance technology is on hold, after some Black aldermen expressed concern that it could prevent them from using valuable tools to fight violent crime.,

The bill’s sponsor, Eighth Ward Alderwoman Annie Rice, had hoped the aldermanic Public Safety Committee would send the bill to the full Board of Aldermen with a “Do Pass” recommendation at the end of its meeting Thursday.

But Rice said she wouldn’t seek a vote and instead would work with more African-American aldermen to get a consensus. She acknowledged that out of 12 Black aldermen, she had consulted with only 17th Ward Alderwoman Tina Pihl, 18th Ward Alderman Jesse Todd and 26th Ward Alderwoman Shameem Clark Hubbard.

The bill requires the Board of Aldermen to hold a hearing on and then approve a plan for any method of surveillance, such as facial recognition, gunshot detection or passive scanning of radio networks. After that, the Board of Aldermen would have to receive a yearly report on that form of surveillance.

Once the reports are done, aldermen wouldn’t have to approve each new use of the form of technology. 

After hearing this, Third Ward Alderman Brandon Bosley made an impassioned appeal to exclude his ward from the bill. 

Rice told Bosley that so long as a surveillance technology falls within the parameters of something that’s already been approved, additional approval wasn’t required.

“I don’t want to go to 27 other people,” Bosley said. “I’m tired of dodging bullets.”

Twenty-Second Ward Alderman Jeffrey Boyd, the Public Safety Committee chairman, agreed with Bosley. 

“What kind of act have they been engaged in that we need to stop?” Boyd asked. “Why is it so important that we have to have a law?” 

“The aldermen who represent a 90 percent Black ward are not included in this,” Boyd complained.

Boyd also said the white aldermen would never be able to recognize what it’s like to be Black and live in an area with crime, as he has. 

“I don’t think we’re anywhere near being prepared for a vote on this,” another African-American alderwoman, Marlene Davis of the 19th Ward, said.

And 27th Ward Alderwoman Pam Boyd, who is also Black, said, “My community is not at the table.”  

Others spoke passionately of the need for the bill. 

Twenty-fourth Ward Alderman Bret Narayan, who is white, said there was a concern about persistent surveillance. The bill “just means that the people know the kind of technology that we’re using,” he said.

In a letter to the Public Safety Committee, Heather Taylor, senior advisor to Public Safety Director Daniel Isom and deputy public safety director, said she and Isom supported the legislation.

“This legislation does not curtail the ability of St. Louis to use surveillance technology,” she explained. “There will be instances when surveillance technology is needed to carry out our mission, and we will be able to fulfill that mission with this in place.”

Taylor wrote that the bill “asks for a plan from city entities on how we will use the tools we have and those we may acquire.” She also wrote, “Our goal is to ensure the safety of all our residents, and, at the center of that mission, is their inclusion in the process.”

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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