St. Louis Considers Plan for Daily Aerial Surveillance

Under a recent proposal, planes would photograph the city 16 hours a day. The technology also allows rewinding the cameras to show where people at the scene of a crime had been before the incident.

by Mark Schlinkmann, St. Louis Post-Dispatch / October 3, 2019
St. Louis Shutterstock/Carlos E. Santa Maria

(TNS) — Legislation carrying out plans to assign 18 St. Louis County police officers to patrol MetroLink in the city cleared an aldermanic committee Tuesday.

Also Tuesday:

  • An Ohio-based surveillance firm sought support from aldermen for a three-year trial program to use aircraft cameras to track movements of suspects moments after a crime is committed. The firm’s owner said a Texas billionaire couple may cover the cost, estimated at up to $7.5 million.
  • A recently revived effort to buy body cameras for city police moved forward, with a city selection panel reviewing what to include in a request for bids to be sent to six rival companies.
  • Mayor Lyda Krewson said on radio station KMOX (1120 AM) that an eventual consolidation of the city and county police departments would be difficult to carry out but is “something we can think about.” But the mayor reiterated her opposition to a plan for a county police “takeover” of city police proposed last year by County Police Chief Jon Belmar. She added that she is focused now on shorter-term efforts such as the pending county offer to help the city patrol MetroLink.

The MetroLink measure, which was endorsed by the aldermanic Public Safety Committee, would give Police Chief John Hayden authority to negotiate details of the assistance offered recently by County Executive Sam Page.

The bill, which now goes to the full Board of Aldermen, also would give county police authority to arrest people for city ordinance violations.

They already have the right to make arrests for felonies and misdemeanors in the city, said Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards.

“It’s not going to cost the city anything,” said the bill’s sponsor, Alderman Joe Vaccaro, D-23rd Ward.

The aerial surveillance camera plan was brought before the same committee by Ross McNutt, president of Xenia, Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems.

He said the plan would provide police real-time information shortly after a crime to track people and vehicles leaving the scene and pinpoint what address they fled to.

The technology also allows backtracking the cameras to show where people at the scene had been before the incident. McNutt said police also can track down potential witnesses to crimes with the technology.

He said planes would be deployed at up to 10,000 feet 16 hours a day under the proposal, with three aircraft assigned to St. Louis.

“We provide a Google-Earth-like image every second at a resolution where we can just barely see a person coming and going from a murder,” McNutt said.

Once the firm is notified by a 911 call or a shots-fired notification, he said, “we’re able to zoom in anywhere within the city to the location of a reported crime.”

He said in an interview that John and Laura Arnold, a billionaire couple from Houston, have offered to fund a three-year pilot program in a city with serious violent crime problems and that “St. Louis is an acceptable one.”

He said such a donation also would cover the hiring of analysts and additional police and an outside assessment of the program’s success.

He said the Arnolds already made such an offer to Baltimore, which McNutt said has been weighing the idea for three years but has yet to decide.

The Arnolds could not be reached for comment Tuesday. McNutt said John Arnold, with whom he has been dealing with, “may be willing to fund both but at this point, he’s offered to fund one.”

The Baltimore Sun reported last month that John Arnold in a statement confirmed his strong interest in funding a program in Baltimore but that nothing is certain yet. The Arnolds funded a shorter pilot program there in 2016.

The Sun reported that it was halted amid criticism of its secrecy and condemnations from civil liberties advocates that say the system violates individuals’ rights.

McNutt said Baltimore police had requested that the 2016 program not be publicized. He said people’s rights aren’t violated because individuals can’t be identified using the cameras.

“I can’t see who a person is; they’re a single pixel,” he said. “My goal is to figure out where they came from and where they went to and feed that information to detectives.”

A spokesman for Krewson, Koran Addo, said later Tuesday that the city administration would consider any method to help curtail violent crime but that McNutt had yet to contact the mayor’s office with detailed information. Addo added that any surveillance technology would have to be scrutinized for its effect on people’s rights.

On body cameras, the mayor in August said she would form a new committee to seek proposals from vendors after dropping the idea two years ago. Aldermanic President Lewis Reed has introduced a bill to assign $3.5 million to pay for it.

Krewson, in her KMOX appearance, also reiterated her explanation of why she sent to a Centene Corp. executive, Tom Irwin, her proposal last March that the county loan the city 42 county police officers to help deal with the city’s own officer shortage.

She said she did so because Irwin just a few days earlier had convened a meeting on police issues that she and Edwards had with Belmar, then-County Executive Steve Stenger and a group of business executives. She said she assumed that Irwin would share her plan with the county.

She said she began talking with Page about policing issues “I think it was on May 31” after Page was picked to succeed Stenger, who resigned when he was indicted on corruption charges.

“I’ve talked with him three or four or five times since then about how we can work together.... If you have extra officers, let’s do a loan program or a contract program,” she said. That resulted in Page’s recent proposal to assign 18 county officers to MetroLink in the city, she said.

©2019 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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