St. Louis, Mo., Works to Regulate Surveillance Cameras

A renewed effort by civil liberties advocates to enact more controls on the use of street cameras and other surveillance technology by St. Louis was launched Tuesday at an aldermanic hearing.

by Mark Schlinkmann, St. Louis Post-Dispatch / October 16, 2019
St. Louis Shutterstock/Carlos E. Santa Maria

(TNS) — A renewed effort by civil liberties advocates to enact more controls on the use of street cameras and other surveillance technology by city government in St. Louis, Mo., was launched Tuesday at an aldermanic hearing.

Like previous bills that didn’t pass in the last two years, the measure would require police and other city agencies to present detailed plans to the Board of Aldermen outlining the use and funding of such equipment.

The measure, sponsored by Alderman John Collins-Muhammad, D-21st Ward, would require agencies to outline in advance the geographic area to be covered, partnerships planned with other organizations and measures to be used to avoid any bias in data collection and targeting. Aldermanic approval would be required.

“It protects your and my right to privacy, which is a cornerstone of democracy,” Sara Baker, legislative and policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, told the aldermanic Public Safety Committee.

As it stands now, Baker said, “our city is operating like the Wild West” with little oversight.

Annual reports detailing the effectiveness of such equipment also would be mandated.

City police already get feeds from about 600 cameras across the city. Meanwhile, an Ohio-based surveillance company is urging the city to begin a three-year pilot program to use aircraft-borne cameras to track fleeing suspects moments after a shooting is reported.

A news conference was held Tuesday afternoon at New Northside Missionary Baptist Church on Goodfellow Boulevard in support of that idea. Among those participating were area residents who have lost loved ones to gun violence and concerned community members.

That followed a City Hall rally last week by opponents.

The bill considered Tuesday by aldermen drew criticism from Robert Gaskill-Clemons, who was hired last year as the city’s chief technology officer by Mayor Lyda Krewson.

Gaskill-Clemons said while he shares the concerns over citizen privacy, the legislation should be reworded to avoid “potentially unintended consequences.”

He said, for example, that the bill would require agencies to obtain aldermanic approval for DNA testing systems used in police investigations. He also said it would require aldermanic approval for police fingerprinting and wiretapping already subject to federal and or state rules.

Moreover, he said the measure would “force the city to assume liability and risk that it shouldn’t have,” referring to anti-crime cameras operated by neighborhood organizations which share data with city police.

He also said the bill would “complicate efforts” to share camera footage with other entities such as Metro Transit and college campus security forces.

Gaskill-Clemons also questioned the bill’s requirement that the annual report provide data on arrests and crime reduction in specified geographic areas to analyze the success of a particular technology. He said crime rates also are affected by other factors.

“We are not going to achieve our public safety outcomes just by employing cameras,” he said.

Gaskill-Clemons added that the bill needs to assign “overall accountability” for such equipment to the mayor instead of the city’s public safety director, a mayoral appointee.

Collins-Muhammad held off asking for a committee vote on the bill to allow more work on it. Gaskill-Clemons said he plans within 30 days to complete a proposed administrative policy on the same issue. That was due last month under an aldermanic resolution passed earlier this year.

Also Tuesday, the committee endorsed and sent to the full board:

• A bill pushed by aldermanic President Lewis Reed to require licensed gun dealers in the city to alert police whenever a prospective buyer fails a federal background check.

Speaking for the bill was Randee Steffen, of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. She said the FBI isn’t required to tell local police whenever a prohibited person with a criminal past fails a check.

• A measure to increase the number of city police districts to nine from six, reversing a move taken in 2014 under then-Chief Sam Dotson.

The bill’s sponsor, Collins-Muhammad, said the measure would result in police resources being used more effectively.

The current chief, John Hayden, said basing the new district lines in 2014 on all calls for service had been a mistake and that the types of calls should have been taken into consideration.

Hayden had asked that aldermen delay considering the bill for six months because the department’s IT personnel won’t have time until then to do produce detailed data on response times. He said they now are working to implement a new report-writing system.

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

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