Drone Free STL Shifts Focus Toward City-Wide Surveillance and Privacy

By Allison Reilly
PEP Executive Director

This article was originally published in the 2016 edition of the Peace Economy News.

Drone Free STL was a coalition the Peace Economy Project formed in 2014 to stop police drones in the St. Louis region. St. Louis Chief of Police Sam Dotson is still awaiting approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to purchase a drone for the city. Early on, Drone Free broadened its focus toward other surveillance issues, such as body cameras and the Real Time Intelligence Center (RTIC), as the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department looks for ways to put citizens under surveillance besides unmanned drones.

drone free stl, police surveillance, privacy stl

Regarding body camera policy, the coalition finished drafting a city ordinance earlier this year that outlines policy and privacy restrictions on the police use of body cameras. The ordinance sets the rules on data retention, data access, privacy exceptions and use protocols. Body cameras may be one way to improve police accountability, and the coalition itself is neutral on body cameras. But, Drone Free also doesn’t want video to be used against citizens acting lawfully i.e., peaceful protesters. We also want to ensure the police don’t have too much power over how the video is used in investigations of police misconduct, when they can turn off cameras or when they can delete videos off of their cameras or computers.

The Real Time Intelligence Center, also known as the Real Time Crime Center or the Real Time Transportation Center, is a 24/7 monitoring hub for the streets of St. Louis that opened in May 2015. Cameras connect their feeds to the RTIC, and staff can watch those streams for crimes and suspicious activity. They can also turn to a selected camera to gather information once a crime has occurred and relay that information to officers in the field.

The RTIC sounds like it would be a great asset to the St. Louis area, but it’s really not. Drone Free is concerned about who has access to the cameras and what processes are in place, if any, to let the public know when cameras will be installed or connected to the center’s network. According to KTVI in June 2016, there are thousands of cameras in the city, but about 600 are connected to the RTIC. Of those 600 cameras, only 50 are actually owned by SLMPD. The other 550 are owned by businesses and property owners. Regarding the cameras owned by businesses and property owners, there’s no way for the public to know who can watch those cameras and what control those individuals have over the footage. We also don’t know for what government purposes the private cameras will be used now that the government has access to them.

Currently, Drone Free is working with a coalition of local leaders and activists called Privacy Watch to promote public awareness around city-wide surveillance. First, we’re filing Sunshine Requests and in order to research where the cameras that are part of the network are located, how much it cost to build and to maintain the network and how effective the cameras are in reducing crime rates. Then, we’ll put together a survey so we can canvass neighborhoods and assess the public’s knowledge and stance regarding the city’s surveillance capabilities. These two steps alone will likely take several months to complete.

Of course, Drone Free won’t forget about drones. If Dotson does get his FAA approval, then we’ll be on top of what he’s purchasing, why he’s purchasing it and what we can do to stop it.

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