A clear-eyed “witness” watched dispassionately as Eric A. Schmidt aimed his vehicle at David Peterson.
When Schmidt drove at Peterson, ultimately crashing into a Dubuque church’s steps on May 23, 2018, cameras placed in the 1200 block of Main Street recorded the actions.
The resulting footage was important evidence against Schmidt, who eventually pleaded guilty to first-degree criminal mischief and going armed with intent and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Originally installed to help ease the flow of traffic on some occasionally congested thoroughfares, City of Dubuque traffic and other surveillance cameras have become an important crime-solving tool for police.
“(Cameras) have been obviously a game-changer in a lot of different ways,” said Lt. Joe Messerich. “They are definitely used daily. Officers will use these cameras for something as minor as a property damage traffic accident and then up through our murder investigations.”
The city now has about 1,500 traffic and other surveillance cameras, with about 1,200 related licenses. That license total has increased sixfold since 2012.
The cameras are placed at the intersections of Dubuque’s most heavily traveled roads. They also overlook parks, parking ramps and other public spaces.
Dubuque has spent more than $3 million on its camera system since the first cameras were installed, and the city plans to spend about $500,000 on cameras — from new installations to maintenance on existing units — from fiscal year 2020 through 2024.
The climbing number of cameras troubles privacy advocates.
“This surveillance camera culture is something we would be concerned with,” said Mark Stringer, executive director of American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa. “Generally speaking, the surveillance of everyday Iowans would be problematic to us.”
A bank of monitors spreads out above the dispatchers taking calls in the Dubuque Law Enforcement Center. The footage being displayed flips from John F. Kennedy Road, to Central Avenue, to Northwest Arterial, to Bluff Street and more on command.
Elsewhere in the law enforcement complex, two smaller viewing stations enable investigators to monitor video recordings from most Dubuque streets where fiber optic cable has been laid. The fiber optics sustain the high-tech surveillance, which is also on display in a room on the fourth floor of City Hall, where it is watched and reviewed by a traffic engineer.
“Our officers out there on patrol respond to a wide variety of calls,” Messerich said. “One of the most common ones where traffic cameras get used is a regular, run-of-the-mill accident. An officer might run out to Dodge (Street) and JFK for an accident, and both drivers give conflicting accounts of what happened.
“Before the cameras, the officers would interview witnesses, look at damage and try to determine fault — and they still do that in these cases — but it’s nice to have that independent witness — which is the camera — that can show you, yes, it was this person who ran the red light or it was this person who made the illegal lane change. They are definitely used daily. It’s not uncommon, if you listen to our (police radio) scanner, you will hear an officer respond to an accident and say, ‘Hey, can you jump on a camera and check this for me?’ That’s pretty common.”
Primarily used in routine cases, the surveillance capabilities also can shed light on more serious crimes.
“Let’s say there’s a burglary,” Messerich said. “A lot of times, burglaries are reported to us cold. Somebody comes home and finds their residence was broken into or their car had a window smashed.
“Before cameras, the officers would do a neighborhood canvass. They would knock on doors and see if anybody heard or saw anything. They still do so in these cases, but now again, with the traffic camera footage, it adds one more piece to it.”
Investigators can dial up a time and place covered by a surveillance camera and review the moments before, during and after a crime.
“Some of those cold property crimes that would have never been solved in the past, or would have been difficult to solve in the past,” Messerich said. “Now, we have this camera to get leads on the case, which is excellent.”
The cameras even can help investigators if the actual crime occurs out of sight.
“Let’s say you park your car in a certain area and we might not have camera coverage in that area, but we might have camera coverage on some of the surrounding streets,” Messerich said. “It might allow us to develop a suspect vehicle that was going through the area, especially if we’re talking 3 o’clock in the morning when there is really no other traffic.”
Messerich said officers also use the cameras as an added safety measure during risky calls.
“Let’s say (emergency dispatchers) get a call of shots fired at ‘XYZ Street,’” he said. “If they have camera coverage, they can immediately jump to those cameras, and while the officers are responding there, they can give them real-time updates. ‘We saw the muzzle blast. It looks like your suspect is going to be wearing this, that or the other thing. It looks like they left westbound on foot.’
“So, our officers aren’t going into those calls blind. It can really enhance our safety if we’ve got coverage and it’s one of those types of calls — the more dangerous calls.”
The cameras also can provide information when witnesses might be reluctant to do so.
“If you have a shooting investigation or some type of violent crime investigation that happened in a neighborhood out in public, people are sometimes reluctant to report that to police,” Messerich said. “We get it. If I live on a block and somebody on the block just shot the place up, I’m not going to be the first to throw my name into the investigation because I don’t want to be targeted myself. While it’s rare that we see a witness be threatened, we understand how that can be a hindrance for somebody to want to report things. So, that’s the other nice thing about the cameras. A lot of times in the shooting investigations, we would get there and not get a whole lot of people coming forward to tell us what’s going on, but that camera provides a view, so we can start piecing things together.”
Phil Baskerville, an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at University of Dubuque, contends that the city’s surveillance cameras do more than simply record footage. He said studies have shown that people in communities felt less secure when told that police patrols would be reduced.
“Once they returned, people felt more security,” he said.
Baskerville said he believes Dubuque’s cameras play a similar role in bolstering a sense of security.
“I believe Dubuque has hit a grand slam home run in its use of the cameras,” Baskerville said. “Most of the people of the town know those cameras are out there, so I think it deters crime. Take robberies. Most robberies are not planned weeks in advance. People might spend a little time thinking about it, but while they’re thinking about it, they’ll remember those cameras are out there.”
HELPING TRAFFIC FLOW
Dubuque’s first high-tech traffic cameras were installed for a relatively simple purpose: traffic management.
“I came to work for the city in the year 2000, and we had a really aged infrastructure of traffic signals,” said city traffic engineer Dave Ness. “Nothing was interconnected”
Using budgeted funds and grants related to decreasing pollution by reducing idling cars, Dubuque began to install a fiber-optic network to connect its traffic signals in the early 2000s.
“We started building a fiber-optic interconnect, connecting all of our traffic signals together in the early 2000s and about 2005 we started to get Highway 20 connected,” Ness said. “They were all connected over fiber, with ethernet switches. At that time, we were getting into some remote management of signals.”
By 2006, city staff began feeding more advanced video footage back to the engineering department.
“We could watch them live, and then we could adjust traffic (signals) and see it at the same time,” Ness said. “They were like our ‘eyes’ for the traffic signals. That enabled us to manage the traffic light system much easier from back here.”
City staff decided to expand the use of the footage.
“We thought, ‘If we record these, imagine the troubleshooting capability we would have,’” Ness said. “We started doing that, and then the system grew from there. It became evident that (the cameras) were a big asset to public safety.”
Dubuque’s police and engineering departments soon began to work together, using the cameras that were being installed around town.
“Being traffic engineers, we were up here working with the police department quite a bit on these accidents and on major crimes — like if a homicide happened,” Ness said.
Messerich said the engineering department “has been really responsive in getting cameras out there.”
Police would share crash and other crime data with the engineering department to help determine where to install cameras.
“We were better at putting those (new) cameras in because we knew what places they were needed to be for evidence,” Ness said.
Camera usage also influenced camera type. Fixed direction cameras were preferred to moving, wide-angled cameras.
“A really wide-angle camera can see a lot, but it can’t really see anything in detail,” Ness said. “At times, (police) need those details.”
COUNTING THE COSTS
The cost of installing cameras includes both the device and the storage of the recorded video.
“As you add cameras, you can’t incrementally add hard-drive space,” Ness said. “As you’re adding cameras, you have to pool together those funds. We figure around $2,500 per camera to install. Now, the actual camera costs $1,000, and the license costs $250 and the hard-drive space is probably a couple of hundred dollars. If we were to put in 10 cameras, half of that might be immediate costs. Then, as we get a $25,000 chunk of those funds saved up, then we will add hard-drive space.”
Ness said staffing in the engineering department hasn’t changed as a result of the use of traffic cameras.
“Our staffing hasn’t really changed since 2000, but it has made us much more efficient at our jobs,” he said. “We don’t have the staffing to be watching them constantly.”
Messerich said the use of the cameras doesn’t have a negative impact on staffing.
“But it does add quite a bit of work,” he said. “These cameras generate leads we didn’t have 10 years ago. It is more work for the investigator working that case. It’s one more thing they’re going to have to do. It’s going to generate leads that they are going to have to follow. Additionally, if they find what they need — say they have decent footage of a suspect — then we have to download the video because it only stays in the system for a month. It doesn’t eliminate staffing. If anything, it adds more work to already existing staff.”
The ACLU’s Stringer suggests another cost of the use of camera surveillance is the erosion of privacy.
“We don’t think the government should be able to monitor our behavior without the public being able to opt in,” he said. “Has the public agreed to this degree of surveillance?”
Messerich said police respect people’s right to privacy and it is not feasible for authorities to monitor an individual’s actions outside of the investigation of a crash or crime.
“One, we don’t have the staffing to do that for no reason whatsoever,” he said. “We can’t dedicate somebody to just sit and watch cameras. As far as real-time watching — what’s going on right now — it doesn’t happen unless we’re anticipating a problem in a location. We need our people on the street responding to calls. We can’t justify going down a person just to sit and watch cameras.”
Authorities said camera views are purposely limited to avoid unnecessarily encroaching upon privacy.
“If you would look at all of our camera views, you wouldn’t see any looking into windows or into houses,” Messerich said. “I can’t think of one that isn’t viewing a public area, like a street or sidewalk. Maybe on the peripheral of a camera you might have the exterior of a house, but these things aren’t aimed into specific windows or specific houses, just into public areas that anybody can access.”
Messerich also said there is a lesser expectation of privacy in modern times.
“(Surveillance cameras) are surrounding us whether its city ownership or residential,” he said.
About 17% of American homeowners have a smart video surveillance device, according to survey results released in March by HomeServe USA, a home repair company.
INTO THE FUTURE
Messerich said it is difficult to predict the future of usage.
“We will most likely always be limited by staffing in terms of what we can do with them,” he said. “The cameras don’t replace the woman or man in the squad car — the actual officer that is out there on the street, observing things, responding to calls and interacting with the public. We’re always going to dedicate the bulk of our human resources in the department to doing that job, so that limits what we could do proactively with the cameras.”
Ness said that he expects cameras to expand to areas in reach of the city’s fiber optics.
“(The) Carter and Kaufmann (intersection), we would love to have a camera there, but we just don’t have any fiber optics there,” he said. “Those types of locations are the ones we would be expanding to.”
Police Chief Mark Dalsing said his department is not planning on requesting funds specifically for surveillance cameras in the future.
“However, as the engineering department completes roadway additions and improvements, traffic cameras are often part of the plan, and the police department will have access to the cameras and benefit from their installation,” he said.
A smaller area community soon will follow Dubuque’s lead.
East Dubuque, Ill., is working with the City of Dubuque to connect to the larger community’s system and install surveillance cameras of its own.
“We’re going to start small, with 10 cameras to start with,” said East Dubuque City Administrator Loras Herrig. “We think it will have some of the same benefits as in Dubuque, with both deterring (crime) and (helping) prosecution.”
Herrig said the city will use tax incremental funding for infrastructure to pay for the installation, estimated to cost up to $75,000.
“We would like to be up and running by next spring,” he said.
He referenced events including the April fatal shooting of Jennifer L. Miller, 44, of Dubuque, on Sinsinawa Avenue. No arrests in that case have been reported more than six months later.
“We have had one or two tragic events over here, and we were dependent on people bringing in their own cellphone video,” Herrig said. “That’s not as efficient as having your own system.”