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Aerial Surveillance Proposal Could Fight St. Louis Crime, But Raises Privacy Concerns

Persistence Surveillance Systems originally developed its technology for military use, and now hopes to bring it to St. Louis. This 2013 aerial photo shows the Central West End and Forest Park Southeast neighborhoods in St. Louis. 10/8/19
Paul Sableman | Flickr
Persistence Surveillance Systems originally developed its technology for military use, and now hopes to bring it to St. Louis. This 2013 aerial photo shows the Central West End and Forest Park Southeast neighborhoods in St. Louis.

Dayton, Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems developed its aerial surveillance system to help the military in Fallujah. The company’s CEO, Ross McNutt, has compared it to “Google Earth, with TiVo capability.” Now a pair of wealthy donors are offering to help St. Louis implement the system and use it for three years without cost. 

McNutt said Tuesday on St. Louis on the Air that he believes the technology could make a big difference in a city that’s struggled with crime.

“We believe this will help major cities reduce their major crime rates dramatically,” he said. “And when you look at the United States, there are two major cities that stand out above all the rest: St. Louis and Baltimore.”

But a pilot program in Baltimore, which McNutt said city officials insisted begin in secrecy, drew major pushback after becoming public knowledge. St. Louis could be the company’s best hope of getting the sort of multi-year commitment that McNutt acknowledged he needs to demonstrate the technology’s efficacy. (Texas philanthropists John and Laura Arnold would cover all expenses, he said.)

Here’s how it works

Pilots flying high over an area capture images that can be used later to zoom in on the scene of a crime. Staffers can then follow anyone at the scene back or forward in time, allowing for a determination of where they came from or where they went. By highlighting which security cameras those people pass along the way, the images could make it easy to identify them. It’s a huge leap forward in surveillance technology. 

Protester Cedric Redmon says bridges of communication need to be built in addition to protests so that lasting criminal justice reform can occur.
Credit Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
Cedric "C-Sharp Redmon" supports increased surveillance to solve St. Louis crimes.

Community activist Cedric “C-Sharp” Redmon is a believer. He first became aware of Persistent Surveillance Systems at a focus group hosted by local physician Delbert Moeller, who’d like to see its technology implemented in St. Louis. Redmon was so impressed, he arranged to bring CEO McNutt to the public safety committee of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen. 

“We’ve had 156 murders in the city this year,” Redmon said. “One hundred and twelve of them are unsolved. People are vanishing … People who are burying their loved ones, they need closure. That’s not happening.”

October 8, 2019 Annie Rice
Credit Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio
Alderwoman Annie Rice has concerns about a surveillance system being proposed for St. Louis.

Alderwoman Annie Rice said she has serious privacy concerns. She learned about the proposal after McNutt’s presentation to the public safety committee, and detailed a number of aspects that give her pause.

“It’s been a flurry in the last week to gather as much information as possible,” she said. “My initial reaction is, airplane surveillance is not really something I want to live under … We do have a significant problem in St. Louis. We do need to be able to solve crimes. But I’m concerned on a number of counts about oversight into the program, about really building community relations as a part of this. How is this building relationships between law enforcement and the community if we’re just surveilling people?”

Listen here:

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan, Alexis Moore and Tonina Saputo. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

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Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

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