A Filmmaker Wants to Put Gravois Park Under Drone Surveillance

But both city officials and businesses are pushing back

Dec 13, 2023 at 1:31 pm
Gravois Park is located on St. Louis' south side.
Gravois Park is located on St. Louis' south side. FLICKR/PAUL SABLEMAN

If a Washington, DC-based filmmaker gets his way, surveillance drones will be hovering over St. Louis’ Gravois Park neighborhood starting next month as a way to fight crime. 

Fox 2's Andy Banker reported last night that the filmmaker plans a two-week test run in January during which residents can access a live feed from the drones between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m.

The man behind the effort, Joe Johnson, head of SMS Novel Films, tells the the RFT that the drones will be piloted by employees of his company who are situated nearby, "usually operating from an open field, an open park or in their car." Each individual operator can cover about one square mile. 

"We hire folks and then they operate once they do about three to four weeks of training," Johnson says. 

Johnson says he has a background in ministry and social justice in addition to filmmaking, and given that his company's filmmaking equipment is only being used to make about one film every two months, he saw the drone program as a way to put the technology to good use. (Among the projects that Johnson's company has in the pipeline is a biopic about Ashli Babbitt, who died during the Capitol insurrection; Johnson says the film will be about the tragic consequences of buying into disinformation and "the big lie" of January 6.)

Johnson sees the drones as being a way to keep city residents safe.

"You hate to bring it up October 7, that probably couldn't have been prevented," Johnson says. "But I think a lot of people could have been saved if there was a greater amount of detection of what was happening around them."

At least one public official isn't having it. 

"To my knowledge, they don’t have any type of authorization or permit to proceed, but I am looking into this further," Alderman Shane Cohn tells the RFT. Cohn's 3rd Ward contains portions of Gravois Park.

Cohn adds in a text message, "A private entity charging citizens to utilize/watch vigilante drone footage is ridiculous, and does nothing to deter crime, and only sacrifices citizen’s liberty at the hand of ill-fated security measures."

Johnson says that concerns like those expressed by Cohn are overblown.

"Number one, somebody's always watching," Johnson says. "Number two, most of the time the drones operate so high, you're not going to see them. Number three, if you're not doing anything illegal or criminal, you don't have anything to worry about."

Johnson's drones remind some city residents of a failed effort by a company in Ohio to fly a "spy plane" around St. Louis as a way to fight crime. That effort was ultimately scrapped in the face of public pushback. 

Cohn tells the RFT that he has not been consulted or in contact with Johnson's company. He adds that since seeing the Fox 2 story, he has reached out to other city officials to see if Johnson's outfit has been in contact with anyone in city government. 

Johnson says yes.

"We are reaching out [to city officials], but it is extremely important to note that we are completely private," Johnson says. "So anytime we do a beta test, about two weeks before we'll send out a notice to the council, to aldermen, to the police, to let them know what we're doing, who we are, that we have credentials.”

At least one local business says they'll defy the drones, if they do come to Gravois Park.

Earthbound Beer tweeted this morning, "We have one of the tallest roofs in Gravois Park. I bet we can bring these drones down."

Presumably, the brewery is stocking up on pool skimmers and tennis rackets as we speak.

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