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With Aerial Surveillance Bill On Hold, Alderwoman Pushes For Privacy Protections

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
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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.

Last Friday, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen was prepared to vote on a plan to bring aerial surveillance to the city. Board Bill 200 would have compelled the mayor’s office to contract with Persistent Surveillance Systems, an Ohio company that hopes to use planes equipped with high-resolution cameras to monitor the city in a bid to solve violent crimes.

The aldermen ended up not voting on the bill after it was moved off the consent agenda at the last minute. One issue may be concerns from City Counselor Michael Garvin, who has said it’s not legal for the Board of Aldermen to order the mayor’s office to sign a contract. But the plan is not yet dead. Mayor Lyda Krewson reportedly has asked for changes to the bill, which some observers suggest means she may be open to signing it.

On Tuesday, Alderwoman Annie Rice of the 8th Ward joined St. Louis on the Air to discuss what’s next for the aerial surveillance bill. She said that in addition to Garvin’s apprehension, funding is a major hurdle for the proposal.

“Up until now, there had always been an understanding that the Arnold foundation, who had paid for [a pilot program] in Baltimore, was always interested in paying here in St. Louis,” Rice said.

That understanding was dashed earlier this month, when the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Arnold Ventures would not commit to funding the program in St. Louis without some amount of public funding. The Texas-based philanthropists are also waiting on results from a Rand Corporation study analyzing the effectiveness of aerial surveillance in solving crimes, which has not been published.

“The Arnold foundation doesn’t have information on their return on investment in Baltimore yet, so they are unwilling, at the moment, to back St. Louis in this particular program,” Rice said. “So we don’t know exactly where the funding would come from, but the mayor has signaled that she does not want to commit public money to this. The Arnold foundation says they won’t give any money unless there’s a public commitment of money. Unless there’s someone else who is willing to pay for this, I’m not sure where that funding comes from.”

During the conversation, Rice also talked about a bill she introduced that would provide oversight to surveillance used by the city and its police department. The proposal is the most recent iteration of a surveillance oversight bill originally proposed by then-Alderman Terry Kennedy back when the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department first unveiled its Real Time Crime Center, which utilizes information from surveillance cameras across the city.

Rice said the bill aims to get a sense of what civilian data is being collected by the police department and how it is being used.

If the bill is passed, she said, “the police department, every year, would need to come in front of the public safety committee and report back what [data] they’re working with, how it’s being used, is it effective, are there disparate effects to racial groups in the city of St. Louis.” And new technology — like, say, an ambitious aerial surveillance plan — would come under further scrutiny.

“The other piece is that if they’re going to roll out a new type of technology, that would also need to come before the Board of Aldermen,” Rice said. “All of this would start in the [city’s] Civil Rights Enforcement Agency … they would have the first bite at reviewing what comes forward from the police department, and then it would come to the Public Safety Committee.”

Though Rice expects a few amendments to the bill as it stands today, she is hopeful it will move forward. It was voted out of the Public Safety Committee with a do-pass recommendation, and she believes further modifications don’t need further committee scrutiny.

“I think that we can hash this out on the floor of the board,” she said, “and I am hopeful that we can move that forward here sooner than later.”

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 and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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