Hartmann: St. Louis Spy Force Has Potential

Feb 10, 2021 at 6:15 am
Think of the possibilities.
Think of the possibilities. MIKE MCBEY/FLICKR

St. Louis has been mulling over the wretched idea of enlisting a fleet of spy planes to combat its tragic crime problem. Sure, it would result in utter failure in that regard and trample civil liberties in the process.

But think of the upside.

At the moment, the city has no air power whatsoever, other than some police helicopters that are easily spotted and offer little value for espionage or other offensive purposes. By developing mighty stealth air power — the St. Louis Spy Force — the city could restore a little of the clout it has lost in the past half-century.

We're talking about a city under siege here, from crackpot outstate legislators trying to usurp its right of self-governing to surrounding counties trying to poach its jobs. There is no political subdivision presently more disrespected on a regular basis than the city of St. Louis. Having its own local airpower could change that in a hurry.

As for those outstate legislators who find sport in torturing the city for political gain, two words: meth labs. Picture the message: Our spy planes in St. Louis weren't helping much with our crime problem, but it turns out that it's great fun to watch yours. Want to see some pictures of your cousins?

Let's see how the prospect of spy planes flying overhead sits with those economic development adversaries wanting to get aggressive about stealing companies from the city. How might you enjoy some recon missions flying overhead in your county? We're tracking some curious environmental activities the EPA regulators might find interesting.

The use wouldn't have to be limited, however, to aggressiveness aimed at others in the public sector. In a world in which giant corporations increasingly value the opportunity to compromise the privacy of their workers, the St. Louis Spy Force might actually become a great selling point in attracting new industry to the city.

I can see the marketing campaign now in the business media: "Workforce giving you a hard time? We'll watch 'em for you. We're St. Louis. The only city with a Spy Force."

Last week, the Board of Aldermen surprisingly failed to forge ahead with this creepy idea of keeping the local population under surveillance for eighteen hours per day. But it's expected that it will be back in a matter of months. Unleasing spy planes is such a sad joke that it shouldn't merit serious review, but it actually might happen here, albeit as a long shot.

The notion of spy planes fighting crime has only been attempted in one major city, Baltimore. There, it was tried for the very same reason St. Louis is wasting its time: a sense of despair over an out-of-control homicide rate.

Baltimore's spy planes did nothing over the past five years to dent the city's horrific crime rate even when helping apprehend some suspects. An article published by Baltimore Magazine in partnership with the Pulitzer Center summed it up, "Military-grade surveillance keeps watch over Baltimore and city protests but catches few criminals."

Although the article concluded that residents were mixed in their view of the program, it cited complaints about the loud, droning noise of the planes and the uneasiness of feeling that one was being watched at all times. That was especially true during protests in the city, it reported.

A Maryland ACLU official told the magazine, "the planes are a problem for everyone ... dangerous [and] fundamentally incompatible with a democratic society. That is not a power that the government should have in a democracy."

Last week, Baltimore took the extraordinary step of cancelling a program that was scheduled by contract to expire later this year. And the council cutting off the spicket did so by unanimous vote.

But even though an aldermanic bill in St. Louis unexpectedly failed to advance last week, it had received preliminary approval by a 15-14 vote on January 22. And it's by no means dead going forward: It's champion, Alderman Tom Oldenburg, says he might bring it back April 20 when the next aldermanic session begins.

"Rather than learn from Baltimore's mistakes, St. Louis is following right behind them," says Alderwoman Megan Green who, to her credit, has been a leading foe of the folly. Green points out two really huge problems: One, the entire effort has been shrouded in secrecy; and two, from an actual standpoint of reducing crime, it makes absolutely no sense.

Indeed, an unconstitutional effort to spy on people for the purpose of catching the bad guys is the polar opposite of what the city needs to do to combat crime. For all the bluster and tough talk about "cracking down" on crime, the city has for years been Exhibit A as a case study of why trying to police one's way out of the tragedy does not work.

The best hope for cutting into this tragic problem in St. Louis is to rebuild some degree of confidence and partnership between members of the community and police. Spying on that community is what you'd call the opposite of that.

For a brief shining moment after the George Floyd murder last May, it appeared that cities like St. Louis were poised to reimagine their strategies to policing. There seemed momentum to the notion that more resources should be addressed toward preventing crime from happening in the first place.

There was talk of deploying more resources for mental-health professionals to combat drug addiction rather expecting police to deal with its consequences. There were calls for reforms in policing to improve relations between law enforcement and the communities they presumably serve.

Admittedly, one of the smartest approaches — demilitarizing the city with stronger gun-control measures — was never on the table because of the neanderthal NRA politics engulfing state government. But it seemed at least possible that a shift in mindset toward preventing crime rather than flailing at it might happen in St. Louis.

Apparently not. None of those reforms seems to have taken hold. Instead, St. Louis politicians are talking nonsense about spy planes. Aldermanic President Lewis Reed, a candidate for mayor, argues that "until a real crime plan is presented by anyone, we need to look into utilizing all tools to reduce homicides in the City of St. Louis."

Reed has it directly backward: The one real crime plan that no one has tried is to attack the causes of crime and not its effects. The spy plane nonsense is just an illogical extension of the failed "crack down on crime" mentality that sounds tough while never cracking down on crime.

In the short run, Reed's position may benefit his chief mayoral; rivals, Alderwoman Cara Spencer — who offered the first and best crime plan — and Treasurer Tishaura Jones. Both Spencer and Jones firmly opposed spy planes while Reed received large campaign donations from those backing it.

But long term, I see the possibility of a compromise here. Leave the spying in the city to the vast NGA complex in North St. Louis. But if it's really going to be free, get that Spy Force flying over the rest of Missouri, and perhaps Southern Illinois.

See who wants to keep messing with the city of St. Louis then.

Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at [email protected] or catch him on Donnybrook at 7 p.m. on Thursdays on the Nine Network and St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).