A proposal to deploy so-called “spy planes” over St. Louis is all but dead after meeting fierce resistance from city residents and activists due to concerns over privacy and civil liberties.
First introduced by Alderman Tom Oldenburg in December 2020, Board Bill 200 would enable the St. Louis Police Department to use surveillance technology supplied by the company Persistent Surveillance Systems to capture aerial footage of the entire city for up to 18 hours a day with the stated aim of reducing crime.
On February 4, the bill was reported out of the Board of Aldermen’s Rules Committee with a “Do not pass recommendation”—meaning that the bill, on the day’s docket for Friday, would need two-thirds of the board, or 20 votes, to be pulled from the calendar. Without removal, the bill would be dead for this session.
“There have been a number of members of the board of alderman,” Alderwoman Megan E. Green, an outspoken critic of the program, said, “who have received some pretty substantial blowback from their constituencies over their votes on this bill.”
Green believes there needs to be more discussion of such a monumental undertaking for the city’s future. “If we’re willing to give away our resident’s privacy rights, then to me that that seems like that should be a pretty robust discussion with a lot of community engagement,” Green told The Nation. “And that’s not what has happened here.”
The program’s detractors object to the way PSS technology has been used in other municipalities—Baltimore, Md., and Compton, Calif.—to target marginalized communities and violate the civil rights of city residents. Representative Cori Bush, who represents St. Louis and much of northern St. Louis county, told The Nation in an e-mail that the program, which she said “actively harms our communities,” could have dire consequences for the city.
“We do not want, we do not need, and we cannot have spy planes flying over St. Louis,” said Bush. “Our district cannot be a dumping ground for technology that has failed to keep communities safe—there is simply too much at stake.”
The ACLU of Missouri strongly opposes the program, the group’s legislative and policy director Sara Baker told The Nation, and that opposition goes beyond just St. Louis. The group’s Maryland arm filed suit against the Baltimore Police Department for their use of a similar program, also run by PSS, in April. The suit is set to be argued before the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in March. On Wednesday, February 3, the city of Baltimore terminated its contract with PSS; the company says it is destroying all but 15 percent of the data collected by the planes, with the remainder being used in ongoing investigations.
Residents are also making their displeasure known. At a virtual hearing on the bill on January 5, around 25 residents joined the meeting to voice their opposition. The same week, nearly 500 St. Louis residents signed a petition—as of publication there were more than 680 signatures—opposing city investment in the planes. Oldenburg, who wrote the bill and is working with PSS to get it passed, appears undeterred.
Attempts to reach Oldenburg were unsuccessful.
Privacy concerns over the use by police and other authorities of video footage captured by the planes in conjunction with other surveillance may be tempered a bit by the perfected version of the bill, which stops reciprocal integration between the feed from the spy planes and the department’s Real Time Crime Center cameras from happening in real-time. Nonetheless, the extent to which surveillance can quickly be used as a dragnet raises the potential for civil liberties violations from the recordings and surveillance. And that presents problems for the city’s marginalized communities, said Reed.
“The surveillance is something that we have seen weaponized against Black and brown communities,” said Reed. “It infringes on the rights of people’s privacy while also not actually doing anything to prevent or in some cases solve acts of violence that happen in our neighborhoods.”
According to PSS president and founder Ross McNutt, the sheer volume of information the spy planes create makes the data too difficult to search and he believes that concerns over tracking people for political or other activities are overblown. While the PSS CEO conceded that he could track any car, “it’s just a matter of priorities.”
“It takes a lot of effort,” he said. “I’ve got 400,000 cars within my images and people are worried that, oh, my God, I must follow someone to the grocery store or the clinic or something like that.”
Instead, he claimed, deterrence is the goal of the technology, and the threat of the PSS surveillance is enough to discourage many people from committing violent crimes.
Billionaire-backed philanthropic effort Arnold Ventures funded the spy plane effort in Baltimore, and local news reports had connected the organization to the St. Louis program as a backer. But on January 26, Arnold Ventures announced that “after 11 months of implementation, evaluation and preliminary research, we have decided against further investments in the program at this time.”
Prior to the foundation’s statement, McNutt had said that if the deal fell through, there are “two or three other people that we will go ask.”
St. Louis has spent nearly $4 million on surveillance technology in the past three years—an investment that hasn’t been paired with a workable oversight mechanism that would determine if the technology is being used properly or who the program is targeting, said Kayla Reed, executive director of the advocacy group Action St. Louis. Reed cited that lack of oversight of the proposed program as part of a general lack of accountability in the department as points of concern—a continued reliance on what doesn’t work.
“What it will do is, again, increase the likelihood that people, particularly Black people and poor people in this city, will be criminalized,” said Reed.
Decades of presenting policing as the only way to fix the crime problem has led to a situation where fighting programs like the PSS surveillance planes is presenting problems to local activists, John Chasnoff, Coalition Against Police Crimes cochair, told The Nation. City residents are not as informed about the program as he’d like them to be and are desperate for an end to the murders.
“In all fairness, the public is split,” said Chasnoff. “When we get out on the streets and do canvassing and talk to folks about this, they are quite concerned—but we’re a small organization, and the push to arrest and incarcerate, incarcerate our way out of these problems has been going on for decades.”
To Reed, the reliance on more policing and surveillance technologies demonstrates what’s wrong with the city’s approach to public safety. Last year marked an uptick in murders and violent crime in St. Louis, but leaders who rely on policing to solve the issue are just doing what has already failed, she told The Nation.
“Police officers in the city and this police department at large have infringed on the rights of people for decades,” said Reed. “To add something else to a broken system is only going to expand the problems that already exist.”
Critics of the PSS program readily acknowledge St. Louis has a violent crime problem and that residents are not necessarily opposed to a more robust police response to criminal behavior. But that’s different from an endorsement of the powers called for by Oldenburg and PSS.
St. Louis was near the center of a national movement against police violence that erupted after a teenager named Mike Brown was shot dead in 2014 by a police officer in nearby Ferguson—and members of the community have long been opposed to police treatment of Black city residents. The city’s record of dealing with unrest adds another wrinkle to how the program is being received by activists and local leaders.
“I would be hesitant about any iteration of this because I think that just the abuse of coming against protesters has had too many historical underpinnings in our community,” Green said.
Bush, who was herself one of the activists on the streets in 2014, noted that the spy planes will be used by a police department incredibly hostile to the city’s activist and marginalized communities, saying, “We know firsthand that these are tools that have been misused to track down and detain protesters for standing up against injustice—in a city that already detains protesters without warrants through a system that I believe to be unconstitutional.”
Whatever the future of PSS’s plan for spy planes over the skies of St. Louis, the program’s threat to privacy and civil liberties concerns is real and will continue. Promises from McNutt that the amount of data makes sifting through it too time-consuming to be effective are insufficient to address the real issues that come with an ever-watchful eye in the sky recording the city for up to 18 hours a day.
For St. Louis, the need to deal with the city’s crime problem could result in jumping at solutions with unintended consequences. Leaders like Bush advocate a different path: using funding to address the root causes of the cycles of violence. The city may have decided Thursday to not continue pursuing the use of spy planes in St. Louis.
This article has been updated to reflect that Board Bill 200 may not be passed this legislative session after it was reported out of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen’s Rules Committee with a “Do not pass” recommendation.