St. Louis police turn to technology to catch criminals, but are surveillance cameras actually working?
ST. LOUIS (KMOV) -- Local police departments, looking to nab criminals, are turning more to technology.
They’re putting their own cameras on street corners and in the sky, but they’re doing so in secret, which has some people questioning why there’s not more transparency on the technology, funded by your tax dollars.
If you check the St. Louis Police Department’s social sites, you’ll see image after image of criminals they’re asking you to help catch. Tom Sawyer is a former city cop who is now head of a company called Blue Line Technology. They don’t have a contract with the city, but they are an industry expert in surveillance tech. He told News 4 that departments nationwide are installing their own cameras, in hopes of preventing and solving crimes. After all, the camera is a star witness.
“A camera will show you what it has and won’t deviate in its testimony,” Sawyer said.
St. Louis police have been implementing cameras for years now. Back in 2018, News 4 toured the city’s Real Time Crime Center, a 24-7 shop. At the time, the department said they had 600 public and private cameras on continuous feeds. But ever since, the city’s been more secretive as they’re installing more eyes all the time.
“That’s the thing about technology, it’s scalable, you can scale up, start with a few cameras and then it comes hundreds and hundreds of cameras as more funding becomes available and needs are identified,” Sawyer explained.
Many of the city’s cameras are very visible to the naked eye: They’ve even got flashing lights. But the public is not allowed to know how many cameras are owned and operated by the city now. News 4 submitted a public records request asking for documents on the cameras because we wanted to know how often they were broken. Page after page of the documents were blacked out and redacted.
The department is now refusing to disclose how many cameras they have, or with what specific camera companies they contract. The department told News 4 that the information relates to sensitive law enforcement information and data information technology.
“Why would St. Louis be afraid of letting citizens know what to do in the name of keeping them safe and protected?” asked Chad Marlow with the ACLU.
He said he’s got real concerns about the state of surveillance in the city.
“It’s a matter of scale and invasiveness that can be turned on when the government owns all the cameras,” said Marlow.
He worries they impact only some.
“When you get a camera deployed in a poor community or a community of color, it’s there to watch the people that live there, when it is deployed in an affluent community, it is watching the people who don’t live there,” Marlow said.
“Secrecy around surveillance makes it hard for the taxpayers to know if it’s the best use of their tax dollars,” he added.
in recent years--a proposed bill at the board of aldermen would require more surveillance oversight but it’s so far--not passed.
“If anything, St. Louis is on the worst side,” Marlow said.
Other cities like Baltimore and Washington DC even have maps or lists of the exact camera locations.
St. Louis City Alderman Brandon Bosley said there’s no reason why police shouldn’t reveal the locations of some of the cameras.
“I think it should be balanced, a lot we know where they are and some that are stealth, mobile cameras,” said Alderman Bosley.
He wants even more cameras, in nearly every neighborhood.
“In our area, there is not enough of them, and I don’t see the PD not moving this way,” he said.
News 4 did learn the police department is utilizing fixed and mobile cams, some with pretty good zoom power. They’ve also got license plate readers that can feed information about cars on the streets in real-time. While they have a drone, the department told News 4 Investigates, they haven’t started using it yet.
News 4′s review of documents also revealed the cameras often aren’t even working. An accident knocked down a camera in 2020 and, according to emails, another wasn’t working because it appeared to have been tampered with.
But more often, it’s just a tech failure, the camera frozen, or pointed at the ground, the images obscured or blurred.
In emails, officers sometimes expressed frustration. One writing about a homicide in June of 2021: “the camera would have captured the incident in full if operational. The camera appears to be offline for some time.”
“The cameras are down,” wrote another officer in 2019. “There is a shooting at this location and the cameras could be of use.”
Fixing the cameras, the police department said, is the responsibility of private companies installing them.
The cameras being down sometimes is not a surprise to Sawyer.
“They are only effective if they’re working and as with any technology, things can go down for temporary periods of time,” he said.
He also told News 4 that as a crime tool, they’ll always have their limits.
“Can a camera replace a uniformed police officer?” asked Investigative Reporter Lauren Trager.
“Absolutely not,” answered Sawyer. He said the cameras need to be paired with patrols.
Still, he, too, believes there should be more openness from the police about who’s being watched and when.
“You don’t want to get caught on tape doing crime, but unfortunately a lot of people don’t care if they get caught or not,” he said.
For those worried they’re forever under a watchful eye, Sawyer said, “No one is watching every camera out there, it can’t be done.”
News 4 asked St. Louis police for data on how effective the cameras are. So far this year, the license plate readers, which are smart cameras, have resulted in 476 arrests and the recovery of 291 stolen vehicles. In addition, 99 guns have been recovered.
St. Louis isn’t the only one with cameras they operate. St. Louis County told News 4 Investigates that they have 44 license plate readers and 30 pan, tilt and zoom cameras spread throughout the county. But they said they preferred not to disclose the exact locations.
“The cameras allow us to put eyes on certain locations much faster and provide vital information to responding officers,” wrote a public information officer for the St. Louis County Police Department.
The City of Clayton disclosed that they had six license plate readers, but also would not tell News 4 where they are located.
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