How St. Louis' Real Time Crime Center Protects Businesses Before People
This summer, the St. Louis region made national news after more than 15 children were killed by gun violence in four months, leaving city leaders struggling to push forward preventative measures.
“This is Third World living over here,” said Alderman Samuel Moore, who represents the city’s Fourth Ward in North St. Louis. “This is horrible that we live like that with all the murders and shootings.”
Three children were killed in Moore’s ward this summer, but the violence isn’t new. The ward also had one of the city’s highest murder counts in 2018 — 24 of 187 homicides total for the city. Moore wants to put surveillance cameras on every corner because he believes they could deter crime, but he feels his hands are tied.
“We can’t afford to buy cameras and to do sidewalks and put in lights and fix up streets with that little amount of money,” said Moore, who represents one of the most impoverished areas of the city.
The Fourth Ward is a nearly two-square-mile area with about 9,000 people — 96 percent of whom are African American. But even though the Fourth Ward has one of the highest murder rates in St. Louis, it only has 15 city-owned surveillance cameras streaming into the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department’s Real Time Crime Center, a high-tech intelligence center where officers monitor nearly 550 city-owned surveillance cameras.
Farther south, the Central West End, the city’s wealthiest neighborhood, is almost the exact same size as Moore’s ward and has about 14,500 residents — a majority of whom are white. It had only one homicide in 2018, yet it has 33 city-owned cameras — more than two times as many as the Fourth Ward.
“There are no cameras where 80 percent of the crime has occurred,” Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards said in an interview last fall. “Never has been. It’s been totally neglected. I’m frustrated because we have no cameras in north St. Louis."
An 18-month-long joint investigation by the St. Louis American and Type Investigations shows, for the first time, what Edwards knows to be true: The city’s cameras are not located in the neighborhoods that have the most profound problems with violent crime, specifically homicides.
We created the first publicly available map of camera locations listed by the police and streets departments in public audits, which, overlaid with census race and income data, shows that there are significantly more cameras in affluent, majority-white areas than there are in majority-black, impoverished parts of the city.
The map also shows that, although the police department has touted the center as targeting the city’s violent crimes, north St. Louis, where most murders were concentrated in 2018, is essentially a camera desert.
Our investigation found that the city’s reliance on private entities and taxing districts to buy cameras that feed into the center has contributed to the inequity — effectively rendering the center's surveillance program a taxpayer-funded security monitoring service for parts of the city that can afford cameras.
The police department said it could not provide details on the types of crimes that the center helped to prosecute, or whether or not the number of arrests for violent crime have increased in the center’s four years of operation.
Some researchers have found that surveillance cameras are more effective at combating property offenses than violent crime. Opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union, say that cameras raise concerns about the targeting or over-policing of people of color. They believe the enormous expense of the cameras takes up resources that could be better used to prevent crimes.
The question remains whether the crime center is actually helping to decrease St. Louis’ homicide rate — which is among the highest in the country.
What does the RTCC do?
Unveiled in May 2015, the Real Time Crime Center provides St. Louis police with eyes and ears all over the city through cameras, as well as license plate readers, sensors that can detect and locate gunfire, and seven surveillance trailers that move throughout the city.
Streaming directly to the center are video feeds from 225 cameras that the police department owns — along with 309 of the Street Department’s and Port Authority’s cameras, according to 2019 camera audits. (City departments must submit camera audits to the operations director at the first business day of every year). There are also 202 cameras that continuously collect license plate numbers, police said, but are not included in the audits.
The center also has access to private cameras throughout the city, where the owners have purchased the expensive camera platform, Genetec, required to stream directly into the center. Police said they had access to 22 “private camera systems,” but did not specify the number of cameras. Edwards approximated the number at 1,300.
Within the center, police officers watch a wall of screens, evaluate criminal activity and communicate with officers on the ground 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, according to the center’s webpage. During a brief media tour in May 2018, Lt. Brent Feig, the commander, touted success in achieving the center’s goals — use of the high-definition video for facial recognition and quick capture of criminals and providing more “situational awareness” for officers on the street.
The crime center assisted police officers in making 1,784 arrests, resulting in 4,348 charges from June 2015 to Oct. 9, according to the police department. What is unclear is the kind of crime that the center has been successful in deterring or solving. Police said they “do not track specific charges or break them down any further.”
As far as the license plate readers, police said they do not monitor for misdemeanor charges — only assaults, homicides, robberies, stolen autos and the like.
Police also said they recovered 1,064 stolen vehicles and 246 illegal firearms from June 2015 to Oct. 9. We submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for any logs or databases that the police used to track arrests and stolen guns, cars or other property retrieved as a result of the crime center. The police replied, “No responsive records,” meaning that they don’t exist.
Feig rejected the American’s request for a follow-up interview after the 2018 tour.
The city prosecutor’s office said that evidence from the center is referenced or presented in about 25 percent of police warrant applications for violent crime charges.
Chief Warrant Officer Chris Hinckley said the center's information is helpful in corroborating evidence in prosecutors’ cases. The material itself is used as evidence in trial in only about 5% of violent crime cases, but when used in the courtroom, the evidence is “very significant.”
Hinckley said it would be useful to have more cameras in high-crime neighborhoods — specifically in the 3.5-square-mile coverage area where the ShotSpotter system locates gunshot sounds.
“The ShotSpotters are certainly helpful, but it’s almost like the potential help greatly outweighs their help right now,” Hinckley said. “The bullet casings being there is not going to bring in charges. Someone to say, ‘I saw that guy shoot that guy’ is what’s the real evidence. They need to put cameras there.”
Cameras are downtown, not where most homicides occur
The map of camera locations and 2018 homicides offers a striking visual.
In north St. Louis, there is a seven-square-mile area that St. Louis Police Chief John Hayden calls “Hayden’s Rectangle,” because the area’s high crime rate requires his attention.
The area contained 67% of the city’s homicides and 50% of all violent crime in 2018. It is bounded by West Florissant Avenue to the north, Dr. Martin Luther King Drive to the south, Vandeventer Avenue to the east, and Goodfellow Boulevard to the west.
This area’s population is 90% or more African American, is highly impoverished and, as Moore mentioned, lacks resources and basic infrastructure. In 2018, there were more than 70 homicides within or just outside this 7.5-square-mile area, according to the map. There were about 78 city-owned cameras within these boundaries.
Downtown St. Louis has more than 215 city-owned cameras, the highest concentration in the city, according to public audits. There were six murders in this area in 2018. And with the help of a $3.8 million federal grant, the city will soon be installing another 121 surveillance cameras mainly in downtown and the central business district, which are meant to address traffic concerns. The grant was submitted about three years ago, Edwards said, which was before his time as the city’s public safety director.
“I was really surprised that they were putting more cameras downtown,” Edwards said. We requested to speak with the police chief about the map, but Hayden declined.
In a statement, a police spokeswoman said: “The police department does not own a majority of the cameras in the City of St. Louis. This precludes, in many instances, where cameras are placed. The deployment of cameras by the police department has and continues to be focused on areas of violence.”
If a certain street or block is experiencing a high level of crime, the department spokesperson added, they can temporarily place a surveillance mobile trailer there, even if there are no permanent cameras. That has helped the police make “great strides” in those areas, she said. “The mobile trailers include cameras and are highly visible with police logos and LED lights,” police stated.
Although Edwards did not review our map, he acknowledged the funding inequity for cameras in an Oct. 9 phone interview.
“I think that the onus is on the city to step up and to make sure that the cameras are in less-affluent areas so that the same protections and the same deterrents exist,” Edwards said. “One of the things that I vowed to make sure is that we have equitable policing and equitable deterrents all over the city of St. Louis.”
Fiscally responsible or irresponsible?
The police department built the RTCC around already-existing cameras purchased by business districts. According to a police spokeswoman, the private/public partnership aspect of the RTCC has “and continues to play an integral role for our department in combating violent crime across the City of St. Louis.”
The police department’s “whole goal was never to buy cameras,” said Traffic Commissioner Deanna Venker, who has an office in the crime center. “Their goal is to pull all these integrated networks from private cameras.”
While the Street Department is able to use Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality federal dollars to buy high-quality cameras for traffic purposes, she said the police department does not have extra pockets of funding to expand their camera system.
The reason the police own so many cameras downtown, she said, is because they were donated to the department by the business association Downtown St. Louis Inc., formerly named the Partnership for Downtown St. Louis.
“Downtown Partnership used to have officers that they hired to watch cameras, and they had their own command center downtown,” Venker said.
Once the crime center opened, Venker said the partnership’s center closed and the crime center took over that function. Missy Kelley, president and CEO of the Downtown Partnership, declined to answer questions about whether or not the cameras have helped to decrease crime downtown.
The police department stated it does not have a budget to purchase a large number of cameras. Relying on its private partnerships and grant opportunities is more “fiscally responsible,” a police spokeswoman said in a statement.
“The SLMPD strives to have a strong public-private network,” she stated. “This approach is more affordable and sustainable for the City of St. Louis. Many cities, such as Chicago, have designed their systems in the same manner federating privately owned and maintained cameras.”
The Central West End Neighborhood Security Initiative is a security center located within the city’s central business corridor.
“The RTCC started because of groups like mine and Downtown Partnership,” said Jim Whyte, initiative's executive director. “So they’ve got all these cameras now, but they didn’t pay for them.”
There are 33 city-owned cameras listed in the 2019 audits within the Central West End. However, when you include cameras owned and operated by the Central West End’s various taxing districts for the area, that jumps to 180 cameras connecting to the crime center.
The security initiative was able to pay for its nearly 150 additional surveillance cameras through several revenue streams. It receives tax revenue from seven Special Business Districts and three Community Improvement Districts. (Community Improvement Districts largely collect sales tax, while Special Business Districts collect property taxes.) The initiative also receives funds from Washington University Medical Center.
Although these cameras were primarily funded through tax dollars, they are not included in the annual camera audits — and the center declined to disclose their locations.
The original idea behind the crime center was to expand in that same manner throughout the city, Whyte said. However, CIDs are mostly concentrated in developed, higher-income areas. According to the state auditor’s 2018 report, only three out of the city’s more than 60 CIDs were located in north St. Louis. All three of these are governed by people associated with the Green Street St. Louis development company, according to the city ordinances, and those revenues are going toward Green Street’s development project costs.
Whyte, who served more than 20 years on the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, said the department needs to figure out a way to put cameras in areas that need it most.
“I worked almost my whole 20 years in north St. Louis,” said Whyte, who retired as a lieutenant in the police department’s 7th District. “Those neighborhoods need cameras more than anybody else, as long as they’re used properly. And how do we get them there is a good question.”
Out of the 22 private camera systems that connect, or federate, into the crime center, only three are located within Hayden’s Crime Reduction Zone, police said.
Moore doesn’t believe that any of his ward’s businesses have connected their cameras to the crime center — and probably would never do so.
“A lot of people are skeptical about being connected with police,” Moore said. “Police are not so trustworthy that they would want the police in their business, even though it might help.”
At least one alderwoman feels this plan of relying on private businesses or special taxing districts to buy cameras is irresponsible and a “huge mistake.”
“Part of the root causes of crime in St. Louis, and in general, is poverty and a lack of access to resources,” said Cara Spencer, who represents the 20th Ward, an area that has one of the higher crime rates in South St. Louis. “To increase public safety by measures of access to capital required to purchase cameras, that furthers the problem. Right now, when you look at crime stats, there are huge disparities in neighborhoods. Neighborhoods that have high poverty have high crime.”
Edwards noted that the Central West End and other communities can afford to put cameras up through their business organizations and ward taxing districts.
“And so north city just can’t compete in terms of money,” he said. “They don’t have the tax base to put these things up.”
When we asked if he still believes that the public-private relationship can create equity in public safety and surveillance, Edwards said “yes.”
Edwards said he has been working on securing about $3 million through “economic development funds” for 300 cameras in high-crime areas, mainly north St. Louis and Dutchtown. He believes he is six to eight months away from securing the funding and about 18 months away from getting cameras installed in these areas.
Infrastructure is limited
One of the biggest challenges in expanding the camera network citywide is the underground fiber system. Fiber lines primarily coordinate the street lights, but they’re now used to connect surveillance cameras to the crime center.
“You can picture it like a vein,” Venker said. “You have major veins and then little arteries that spread off. That’s what our fiber network is like.”
But there are swaths of the city where the fiber network doesn’t exist — including some bigger roads that run through high-crime areas. Page and Goodfellow boulevards and Dr. Martin Luther King Drive don’t have fiber, for instance. And in the highly trafficked Riverview Circle in north St. Louis, there are no street lights so there is no underground fiber. That means getting cameras up in that location is challenging, Venker said.
The police know this is an artery for criminal suspects coming in from and exiting to Interstate 270, but there are no cameras there of any kind – not even license plate readers, Edwards said.
The cameras could be connected to the crime center through a Wi-Fi connection, but that requires a monthly fee for Wi-Fi near each camera, Venker said.
Venker could not show us a map of the fiber network because it’s against Homeland Security regulations, but she explained that the fiber lines appear equally in different parts of the city.
A project to put fiber in on Goodfellow just received federal funding and design is underway, Venker said. The project includes putting cameras on some intersections, according to city documents.
That would mean that three of the boundaries that make up “Hayden’s Rectangle” would have fiber, West Florissant Avenue to the north, Vandeventer Avenue to the east, and Goodfellow Boulevard to the west.
'It shouldn't be politically driven'
Aside from private entities expanding the crime center's camera network, aldermen can also purchase new cameras through Ward Capital Improvement funds. The city’s 28 aldermen are each allotted about $326,700 a year for improvement projects in their wards.
Some aldermen said that with all the other demands — such as fixing sidewalks and giving to neighborhood programs — cameras take up too much of their annual budgets, especially in wards with more needs. Overall, it reflects poor city planning, Spencer said.
“It shouldn’t be politically driven,” Spencer said. “It should be data-driven, and it should be done by experts and not elected officials. You should be doing this in a smart manner that is in everyone’s best interest.”
If aldermen want to use their ward capital funding to buy cameras, they have to go through the city’s Board of Public Service, said Todd Waelterman, the city’s operations director. There, they are often told that they have to connect to the city’s fiber network, according to at least two aldermen. If there is no fiber in the locations where they want cameras, then most of the time they have to use the capital funds to build a fiber line, Waelterman said. And this kind of construction is expensive because it has to be outsourced, Venker said.
With all the expenses, Edwards said aldermen are often only able to purchase about one surveillance camera or one license plate reader camera per year. According to BPS documents, it cost $130,937 for six camera systems that were split between Moore’s ward and another neighboring north St. Louis ward.
Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia put in two of the same camera systems in Fox Park, and it cost $93,000.
Areas in the Central West End also lack access to a fiber line, Whyte said. However, the Central West End’s taxing districts do not have to abide by the BPS’s guidelines for fiber because they are governed by their own boards of directors.
Whyte said the security initiative just finished a camera project with The Grove CID — which includes the restaurant and business district on Manchester Avenue just south of the Central West End neighborhood. It cost about $206,000 for 66 cameras.
The investment for the initiative’s first 87 cameras was $575,000, which Washington University Medical Center helped fund through a grant, according to the initiative’s annual reports.
Because they aren’t connected to the fiber network, the initiative pays about $77,000 for Wi-Fi connections and maintenance of the cameras every year, Whyte said. It has 29 sites in commercial or apartment buildings, where its servers are stored.
The American requested to view all of the crime center’s expenditures. We were given the crime center’s budget for fiscal 2018 of about $524,400, and for FY2019 of about $535,300, which included mainly salaries and a small amount for supplies.
Are surveillance cameras helping?
Whyte allowed us to tour the security initiative, a small basement office on Euclid Avenue, and answered questions for almost two hours. Whyte said he believes that the cameras have helped reduce crime since the initiative was established in 2007.
In 2018, it helped police make 70 arrests, Whyte said. That was up from 53 arrests the year before and up from 49 arrests in 2016. However, Whyte is careful to say that he does not believe that cameras alone deter crime.
“If you think putting a camera on a light pole is going to keep somebody from shooting and killing someone, I think we need to manage expectations a little better,” Whyte said. “I don’t see cameras as a huge deterrent of criminal behavior. What deters crime is identifying, apprehending and charging criminals. And that technology helps police do that now.”
In 2012, criminologist Timothy Dickinson prepared a report on the impact surveillance cameras have on crime, at the request of then-Mayor Francis G. Slay and the city’s public safety director. Dickinson concluded that surveillance cameras are “more effective at combating property offenses than violence or public order crime.” They are more effective at preventing crime when cameras are actively monitored, he found, and the higher the concentrations of cameras, the better their efficiency.
Another local criminologist also prepared a report at the request of the mayor and the St. Louis Public Safety Partnership that year. Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist with the University of Missouri-St. Louis, analyzed the effectiveness of an alderman’s camera system in the 21st Ward.
In 2011, Antonio French, then-alderman of the 21st Ward, purchased 20 cameras with city funds to surveil his high-crime north St. Louis ward. The project was hailed by people like Whyte, who said French’s project inspired the security initiative. However, it was highly criticized by the ACLU of Missouri, which said there were no privacy protections in place and French abused the surveillance cameras to target individuals who were protesting him in March 2012. French did not respond to a request for an interview on his camera system, which is no longer in operation.
Rosenfeld concluded that cameras did reduce crime, but those reductions “dissipated” after about six months.
Rosenfeld also found evidence that the cameras displaced crime to other surrounding areas without cameras — which Whyte said he also has seen at the security initiative. (Dickinson’s report, however, didn’t find that surveillance cameras displaced crime. In fact, he states that in some circumstances, they helped reduce crime in other areas.)
In an interview, Rosenfeld said: “The cameras can be effective to the degree that people in the area see that the police respond to problems that are caught on camera. So it strikes me that the most effective policy is a policy that combines video surveillance with an increase in police presence.”
However, he stressed that the police have to be “behaving right” and engaged in fair and unbiased policing — because no effort will be successful if the community doesn’t trust the police.
“Cameras, Real Time Crime Centers, police presence, ShotSpotters — all these kind of cures of the month that we get treated to,” Rosenfeld said, “Absent of improving trust between communities in need and the police, none of that is going to be very helpful.”
Heather Taylor is a homicide detective with the city’s police department and the president of the Ethical Society of Police, a police association that advocates for racial equity in policing. In the organization's comprehensive evaluation of the police department in 2016, it outlined homicide locations and the response.
“I think it’s pretty common knowledge that if something happens downtown while the Blues are playing or some major event that’s going on,” Taylor said, “some of the people within the city — media and our police department — view those as priorities over you know, ‘These are African Americans who have killed another African American.’”
Taylor said the wealthier areas and businesses are the priorities because they bring in revenue, and “those things are important to sustaining your city.” But it’s up to police investigators to “separate ourselves from that,” she said. Quality video footage is a “huge plus” when solving homicides, she added. But do cameras prevent crime?
“I don’t think so,” she said. “I think people a lot of times are in the heat of passion when a lot of homicides and a lot of violent crime occurs.”
When asked if she would want more quality surveillance in north City, where her family is from, or some of the higher crime areas, she said that it’s a “Catch-22.”
“It’s a catch to it: Are we going to over-police and watch people?” Taylor said. “I think that’s a legitimate concern.”
And it’s a valid concern that a biased police officer could potentially be in the position of monitoring the footage, she said. While cameras help to solve crime, the main factor in solving cases is when people come forward and talk to police, Taylor said.
“Right now we have a policing problem with people trusting us, rightfully so,” Taylor said. “And so that’s usually how you solve cases, where people come forward with physical evidence.”
The ACLU is opposed to surveillance technologies because studies have found that some cities have appeared to use them to target communities of color, said Chad Marlow, senior advocacy and policy counsel for the national ACLU. And St. Louis should particularly be cautious.
“When you know that you have a city that has racial disparities in policing – and that is absolutely the case in St. Louis – and when you know the use of surveillance technologies in general when they have been used throughout the country are deployed in ways that are racially biased, you certainly don’t want to marry those two things,” Marlow said.
In January, the ACLU was highly involved in pushing forward a comprehensive privacy bill regarding surveillance in St. Louis. However, the bill essentially died in the aldermanic Public Safety Committee, and city leaders ended up approving only a watered-down resolution calling for a report on “surveillance technology use.” Aldermen are expected to review a new surveillance bill later this fall.
Last fall, Spencer used ward funding to purchase four cameras for Gravois Park.
However, Spencer has long been hesitant to put up cameras because she said, “the whole system works in a black box” even to the aldermen, and she believes the city has poor policies in place to prevent invasion of privacy. (The American and Type Investigations published an extensive piece looking into at privacy concerns and the crime center in January.)
“Can I in good conscience put cameras up knowing that they are not being monitored without good policies?” Spencer said. “No, but a lot of the community is demanding it. I’m not able to address the issues of public safety in my position, but I can put cameras in.”
The Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression, a grassroots organization focuses on public safety, has long been against surveillance cameras and the crime center.
“First of all, they have not really proven their cost-effectiveness,” said John Chasnoff, co-founder of the coalition. “The cameras are hugely expensive. We’ve already spent millions of dollars on the Real Time Crime Center.”
However, police seem only to be able to point to anecdotal evidence that cameras have impacted violent crime, Chasnoff said.
“Cameras still support the old model of public safety, which is based on arresting and incarcerating,” he said. “They catch people after the fact. They really don't effectively deter crime, especially violent crime, which is the main source of our problem. And so we have been trying to project a vision for public safety, that’s not based on that reactive arrest and incarcerate model. It’s based on building communities, supporting community and getting at the root causes of crime.”
Rebecca Rivas is a reporter for the St. Louis American, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.
This story was reported in partnerships with Type Investigations, where Rebecca Rivas is an Ida B. Wells Fellow. Data reporting by Taylor Eldridge.
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