St. Louis could get ‘eye in the sky’ crime-surveying planes this summer


ST. LOUIS (KTVI) — Residents in St. Louis are getting their first-ever look from the cockpit of a surveillance airplane that may soon be used to fight crime in the city. St. Louis would be the only city in America to use the planes after Baltimore stopped last year.

There is hope the skies may hold the answer to solving St. Louis’ crime problem. The city had the highest homicide rate in 50 years, with 262 homicides in 2020, according to the St. Louis Dispatch.

Dr. Ross McNutt of Dayton, Ohio, founded the Community Support Program, which owns and operates surveillance planes. He flew a Cessna 207 with the million-dollar Hawkeye 2 camera nest he developed to St. Louis for an interview with NewsNation affiliate KTVI this week.

McNutt is a retired Air Force Lt. Colonel who created the technology to trace the sources of roadside bombs (IED’s) in the Iraq War. Now, his program has adapted the technology to fight crime.

The 12-lens camera nest looks like the eyes of a fly. When there’s a crime, police can check footage from the surveillance planes and trace cars and people going to and from the crime scene.

The images are fuzzy with little detail (people appear as large moving dots) but they give investigators maps and a timeline. They also show exactly when a car or person passes by street-level surveillance cameras.

“What we do is we match that up with the ground-based cameras that they pass,” McNutt said. “So, we know exactly which camera they’re in at what second. We provide that to the officers, saving them lots of time.”

For example, from plane surveillance footage of a crash scene in Baltimore, police ended up with photos/videos from street-level cameras of two men on a motorcycle involved in the crash. The men had beaten a woman who tried to help them at the scene, then took off on the motorcycle.

The pilots would fly seven-hour shifts, typically at an altitude between 9,000 to 10,000 feet.

Donors would cover the up to $8 million cost of bringing it to St. Louis.

The cameras are not able to zoom in and focus. They would be used day and night for investigations.

Baltimore dropped the program in the fall after a six-month trial period amid political debate and what critics saw as only limited results: an estimated 20% to 31% jump in closures for homicide cases; and a 23% to 38% jump for carjacking cases.

McNutt claims those results indicate great success considering the limited use of the planes in Baltimore. St. Louis provides a greater opportunity for a much larger sample size.

Supporters say the ground surveillance cameras that already surround us are far more intrusive.

“I would argue 262 murders last year with only 30% of them closed is a larger impact to our quality of life,” said St. Louis Alderman, Tom Oldenburg. “In 2019, we had 194 homicides, 10% closed. This brings a witness forward that’s not a human. This also enhances our already exiting ground cameras.”

St. Louis’s homicide rate was again high for the first two months of 2021.

Oldenberg’s bill to give the planes an 18-month test was nearing approval from the full St. Louis Board of Aldermen last month when it got stifled in committee.

He’ll bring it back next session with Dr. McNutt ready and waiting.

The planes could be flying over St. Louis as early as June.

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