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St. Louis Considers Oversight of City Surveillance Programs

The Board of Aldermen has introduced a bill that would require board approval of any new or expanded police and city surveillance programs. Police claim surveillance technology has helped combat crime.

(TNS) — St. Louis, Mo., leaders reignited a debate Thursday over establishing more oversight of police and city surveillance programs, prompting a response from police officials who argue any measures might slow the department in reacting to violent crime.

Board Bill 31 is the latest in a series of similar bills introduced to the Board of Aldermen over the last four years and would require the board to approve any new or significantly expanded city surveillance technologies.

City departments would be required to submit a plan for any proposed surveillance, including information on cost, data collection and potential civil rights implications. Departments would then need to present annual, detailed reports to aldermen tracking how the technology is used.

Bill sponsor Alderman Annie Rice, Ward 8, said that despite repeated attempts to pass the measure, she is optimistic the bill will get traction this time now that it has the support of newly elected Mayor Tishaura O. Jones.

In 2019, when a similar bill was sponsored by Alderman John Collins-Muhammad, Ward 21, it drew criticism from members of former Mayor Lyda Krewson's administration.

"The previous administration was actively against the bill," Rice told the Post-Dispatch this week. "But I am determined to get it done this time. It isn't an opposition to surveillance technology. It's 'Let's bring it into the light.'"

Rice presented the bill to an aldermanic panel Thursday to mixed reaction.

"The more technology we roll out, the more expensive it gets," Rice argued. "To store that data, to manage that data, to get that data to defense attorneys or to the prosecuting attorneys — all that gets more expensive."

Former St. Louis police Sgt. Heather Taylor, a senior adviser in the city's Public Safety Department, submitted a letter voicing the administration's support for the measure.

"Through transparency we believe we can foster greater trust and use taxpayer dollars more effectively to address crime," Taylor wrote.

Speakers from the American Civil Liberties Union and local advocacy groups ArchCity Defenders and the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression also spoke in support.

Some St. Louis aldermen, however, including Brandon Bosley, Ward 3, and Jeffrey Boyd, Ward 22, criticized the bill, arguing it would create an obstacle for getting new surveillance programs in their wards and may not be supported by residents in the north St. Louis neighborhoods with the highest crime rates.

Bosley requested Ward 3 be exempt from the bill, emphasizing that in his ward violent crime is a regular occurrence.

"My people need resources right now, and I need to be able to look at any innovative way on this planet that can help them," said Bosley, who aims to get surveillance cameras in every ward alley.

"We hate the idea of even having to have cameras," Bosley added. "It's stressful, but it's as stressful or even more stressful not knowing where these bullets are coming from."

Boyd said he thought the bill would result in aldermen "micromanaging" the police department and said the measure needed more input from majority Black neighborhoods.

"We (aldermen) don't understand law enforcement. We don't know what they need to do their job," Boyd said, adding, "Aldermen that represent 90 percent Black wards are not interested in this and we're not being listened to, and that's not right."

Alderman Carol Howard, Ward 14, also raised concerns that the reporting requirements might be burdensome to city police.

"I wonder if we do not even have data from the police department, do we have staffing to do this?" Howard asked, referencing a lag in police public crime data reporting. "I really am concerned about how do we employ the police. We want more police on the streets, but then we're asking them to do this type of thing."

Concerns From Police

Police commanders issued a statement Thursday raising concerns about the bill, arguing that surveillance technology has "greatly enhanced law enforcement's ability to combat violent crime" and in recent years has contributed to resolving hundreds of cases.

"Our biggest concern with Board Bill 31, in its current state, is the potential for long delays in the submission and approval" of a surveillance plan, police officials said. "Our ability to be successful in combating violent crime is weighed heavily on our ability to quickly adapt and place assets in strategic areas to address changing crime trends. Our fear is that this current bill would drastically impact our ability to do just that."

Surveillance technology is not only used to catch criminals but can act as a deterrent, too, the statement said.

Rice said she expected some opposition from police.

"I think any time we are asking for more oversight from police departments we always get some pushback," she said.

Rice says the origins of the surveillance bill go back to the 2015 launch of the St. Louis police Real Time Crime Center, an around-the-clock center inside police headquarters at 1915 Olive Street that allows officers to monitor a network of public and private cameras, license plate readers, hot-spot crime mapping and the ShotSpotter microphone system that can pinpoint gunfire.

At its launch, the center was a key crime-fighting strategy for then-police Chief Sam Dotson.

But within two years, former 18th Ward Alderman Terry Kennedy launched the first of a series of bills asking for more aldermanic oversight as cities around the country were adopting similar measures.

Today, the Real Time Crime Center has access to 125 department-owned cameras and a network of 1,472 other cameras owned by other city departments and private entities, although the city says not all the cameras managed by others are maintained and operational.

The department has said it will not release the locations of the cameras, arguing it would disclose information important to investigations.

The distribution of Real Time Crime Center cameras has been a previous point of scrutiny. The Post-Dispatch reported in 2017 that cameras were disproportionately placed in wealthier areas of the city rather than the neighborhoods with the highest crime.

Crime Center Numbers

St. Louis police this week provided the Post-Dispatch with numbers they say show the effectiveness of the center. This year, the center has received more than 20,400 license-plate reader "hits" for stolen vehicles and more than 64,400 hits for "felony wanted vehicles." The alerts from license plate readers have been linked to more than 220 arrests, 500 charges, the recovery of 182 stolen vehicles and the seizure of 51 guns, according to the department.

Police officials clarified that some vehicles may create hits multiple times as they're driven across the city, driving up the numbers.

The arrest totals don't include other arrests linked to the Real Time Crime Center beyond license plate readings, department spokeswoman officer Michelle Woodling said in an email.

Rice on Thursday opted to delay an aldermanic committee vote on Board Bill 31 to provide more time for debate and public input.

Police commanders said they're willing to discuss concerns about the bill with aldermen "in hopes of creating a plan that is transparent and complements the department's overall goal of reducing violent crime."

(c)2021 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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