Surveillance and secrets: Are St. Louis police following their own rules to protect citizens’ privacy?

The Real Time Crime Center (RTCC) – located in the headquarters of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department at 1915 Olive St. – provides the police department with eyes and ears all over the city. Police detectives monitor about 600 surveillance cameras citywide, as well as license plate reader cameras, sensors that can detect and locate gunfire, and three mobile surveillance trailers.

Yet after a six-month joint-investigation by The St. Louis American and Type Investigations, it was impossible to determine that – as the police department repeatedly claimed – the RTCC was meeting its own protocols for safeguarding privacy.

This past spring, The American learned that two African-American aldermen were drafting an ordinance that addresses community leaders’ long-held concerns about privacy and the police. So we began to ask questions about who has access to the RTCC, how exactly the city uses and pays for the surveillance equipment, and how it shares the data collected. We have not been able to get clear answers.

Privacy advocates believe the Surveillance Technology Bill that Aldermen Terry Kennedy (D-Ward 18) and John Collins-Muhammad (D-Ward 21) introduced on January 11 could help address these concerns. The bill would require any city entity that operates a surveillance program – including using street cameras, body cameras, automatic license plate readers, and facial and voice recognition programs – to present an in-depth plan to the Board of Aldermen, as well as annual accountability reports. It would mainly apply to the police, Street Department and business districts.

“We just want to make sure that the policies are fair and don’t impede on anyone’s privacy rights,” Kennedy said, “because there are a lot of questions to be answered.”

Under the bill, equipment purchases, Sunshine Law requests, and breakdown of arrests and crime reduction must be documented and submitted in an annual report to the aldermen and Public Safety director – and it’s a public record that must be given within five days of a request. The bill proposes that aldermen would hold public hearings to hear feedback from the community about any proposed surveillance technology. Currently the public doesn’t have a voice in the matter.

In St. Louis, the police right now have the power to decide “unilaterally and in secret if and how they are going to use these technologies," said Chad Marlow, senior advocacy and policy counsel for the national ACLU. Given the justifiably high amount of suspicion the citizens of St. Louis hold for their police department, this is unacceptable.

If the Board of Aldermen passes the bill, St. Louis will become the tenth city – as well as a county and a large urban transportation district – to pass similar bills throughout the country, Marlow said. The ACLU has been leading these efforts and providing a legislative template.

Though all citizens rightly prize their privacy, the black community has a special degree of concern about government abuse of surveillance. Studies have found that surveillance technology appears to be targeting communities of color throughout the country. Perhaps more than any other city, advocates believe that St. Louis – a city that has garnered the national spotlight for racial disparities in policing – should be putting its surveillance programs under a rigorous and public review for racial bias and targeting. 

“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.

We believe the board should pass this bill as written and that city residents need to be part of the discussion around police surveillance from this point forward.

The aldermanic Public Safety Committee will hold a hearing on the bill on Thursday, January 24 at 11 the Kennedy Room at City Hall. 

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