Over the past month, St. Louis officials have toyed with the idea of adopting an aerial surveillance system as a crime-fighting tool.

Under the direction of Ross McNutt, chief executive of Persistent Surveillance Systems, three aircraft would fly at 10,000 feet above the city for 16 hours a day.

When a crime is spotted, the surveillance system would be able to zoom in and track suspects as they flee the scene.

It sounds like a potentially risky and pricey affair, but the system at least initially would impose little cost on St. Louis.

Two benefactors would cover the $7.5 million price tag for a three-year trial period. An answer to a portion of St. Louis’ crime problem may have just fallen in the city’s lap.

The proposed system would be entirely separate from the thousands of cameras overlooking St. Louis’ street corners. St. Louis American reporter Rebecca Rivas recently published an in-depth look at the existing camera network and its effectiveness, or lack thereof, in protecting the neighborhoods most vulnerable to violent crime.

As the report noted, the cameras aren’t actually spread out. The city’s most violent and impoverished areas have significantly fewer cameras than wealthier parts of the city.

An aerial surveillance program would be able to track crime in every corner of the city — not just the parts where the wealth and commerce are.

That level of surveillance, however, is just what worries critics. The current cameras have not necessarily proved effective in reducing crime. The American Civil Liberties Union complains that citizens’ privacy is being violated while the cameras may perpetuate the targeting of people of color.

Even McNutt’s aerial surveillance system showed mixed results during a short-lived test run in Baltimore. McNutt counters that the system is designed to track crime, not pry into citizens’ lives.

The company’s website says low-resolution cameras can track human movements but have no “ability to detect gender, ethnicity, age, hair color, nor can it be used for facial recognition.”

McNutt adds that every crime the service monitors is overseen by outside reviewers, like a civilian board. By providing a tracking system immediately after police are alerted to a crime, the system helps them solve crimes rather than just be aware of them.

So far this year, the city has solved only 28% of its murders, compared with a 2017 clearance rate in St. Louis County near 73%.

After a summer in which an explosion in violent crime in St. Louis made national headlines, it’s fair to say the city can use all the help it can get. Aerial surveillance could make a substantial difference, provided city officials outline clear and comprehensive regulations.

The system deserves serious discussion, especially if it comes at no initial cost and includes disciplined oversight. Why not give it a try?

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.


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