St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson is considering a proposal to monitor the city’s streets with surveillance planes as state and local officials grapple with how to address violent crime.
Krewson met with the head of Persistent Surveillance Systems, a company that uses small planes fitted with cameras to capture footage. The company’s founder and president, Ross McNutt, said analysts review the footage to track fleeing suspects.
“We’re not trying to watch somebody jaywalk,” McNutt said. “We’re trying to solve shootings and murders that somebody called in and said, ‘Johnny’s been killed on the corner.'”
McNutt is offering to monitor the city for free for three years. Wealthy philanthropists in Texas agreed to cover the estimated $1.6 million to $2.5 million in yearly expenses for a U.S. city, he said, adding that Baltimore also is considering the deal.
But the prospect of planes watching St. Louis streets has privacy advocates on high alert. Protesters, including members of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, rallied outside Krewson’s office during the meeting.
John Chasnoff, co-chair of the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression and a member of the St. Louis Privacy Watch group, said surveillance planes could record residents’ trips to medical specialists, places of religious worship or political rallies. Chasnoff also said he’s worried that the monitoring could unfairly target immigrant communities and people of color.
“This kind of technology allows for everybody in the city, most of us who’ve not been accused of anything of even suspected of any wrongdoing, to be mass surveilled on a more or less 24/7 proposition,” Chasnoff said. “We think that it raises a lot of constitutional questions.”
McNutt said the areas that analysts review are recorded and could be checked by an independent committee for targeting of communities of color, and the image quality is too poor to discern a person’s race or gender.
“We cannot tell anything about any person’s color,” he said. “They’re a single pixel. So, I can’t tell if they’re man, woman or child. The only reason I know they’re not a bush is they’re running along the sidewalk.”
McNutt said no U.S. cities currently use his planes, which he said have been deployed in countries including Mexico, Uganda and Iraq.
His pitch to St. Louis came as city and state officials face pressure to take action against violence that has rocked the city. Roughly two dozen children died in shootings so far this year, and the city is on pace to top last year’s total of 186 murders.
“We are always open to listening to any proposal that can be used to solve or deter crime,” Krewson said in a statement after her meeting with McNutt. “The presentation was informational, but there are numerous privacy concerns that would have to be addressed first.”