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Eyes on Ped Mall for fights?

BY REGINA ZILBERMINTS | MARCH 31, 2009 7:40 AM

Police are looking to video cameras as one way to combat violence between men in downtown Iowa City, authorities said.

While the possibility of placing cameras downtown is an option, it is not yet being seriously considered, Iowa City police Sgt. Troy Kelsay said.

Violence, particularly on weekend nights, is a major problem in any college town, officers in Ames and Cedar Falls said. This past weekend, two assaults on men occurred on the Pedestrian Mall in Iowa City.

Ames police Cmdr. Jim Robinson said his department does not use remote surveillance.

In Cedar Falls, police have had cameras in the downtown and College Hill areas for several years, Cedar Falls police Capt. Craig Berte said.

The cameras are generally not monitored in real time — though occasionally officers watch them during major events, such as homecoming — but police can watch an incident unfold if they receive a report hours or days later, Berte said.

“They tell us a lot about what’s going on,” he said, noting police can use the tapes to see the specific time of an incident and the number of people involved.

But because a single camera watches a significant area, sometimes as wide as two blocks, the technology is not helpful in identifying suspects, Berte said.

Kelsay said in Iowa City, police would have to examine funding, physical obstructions to cameras’ views, the political climate in Iowa City, and the actual systems available, particularly because most situations are in relatively low light.

“This would not only give us the ability to respond to things in progress, but the ability to allocate resources,” Kelsay said.

If the watch commander sees crowds forming in the Pedestrian Mall, for example, he or she can send additional units. If crowds thin out, officers can be sent to another location.

“We’re willing to do an investigation into [installing cameras] to see if it would be useful,” Kelsay said.

Iowa City police frequently take advantage of cameras in private locations, such as stores or ATMs.

Depending on the system and quality of image, the tapes’ helpfulness varies.

The cameras may have a deterrence effect for some, Kelsay said, though he pointed out “stores with cameras still have problems with shoplifters.” Officials wouldn’t expect putting up cameras to stop assaults from occurring, he said.

Berte said cameras in Cedar Falls may have been a deterrent immediately following the publicity surrounding their installation. But now people either don’t think about them or don’t know they are there, he said.

“The use of cameras has become more widespread,” said Ben Stone, the executive director of the ACLU of Iowa, and he has several concerns about the possibility.

“In a bar district, if people ‘take it outside,’ they’ll just take it farther outside,” he said, and evidence has shown people tend to simply shift the activity police are trying to monitor.

If images are stored, the department must establish guidelines for how they are stored, when recordings will be destroyed, and establish penalties for misuse, Stone said.

If cameras can be manually controlled, officials must ensure no one abuses that power, he said.
Cameras must also be visible, he added.

“People should know whether they are being watched,” Stone said.

Ultimately, officials must decide whether the equipment would benefit the community.

“It’s a cost-benefit analysis,” Kelsay said. “And the cost isn’t just dollars, it’s the functionality and political will.”


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