Fighting crime with technology [Telegraph-Herald (Dubuque, IA)]
(Telegraph-Herald (Dubuque, IA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) When Terry Tobin started as an officer with the Dubuque Police Department in 1980, he typed up incident reports on carbon paper, caught speeders on handheld radar and carried a six-shooter with 12 extra bullets.
Now the assistant police chief, Tobin couldn't imagine then how much the job would change.
"When I first started, there were guys that were 20-25 years with the department that said the job isn't what it used to be," he said. "Now I say that."
With huge advancements in technology, the tools and equipment used by local law enforcement have revolutionized how cases are investigated, reports are filed and operations are run for the departments.
Before the Dubuque Police Department got its first computer in the mid-1980s, Tobin said, officers used typewriters and carbon paper to write up incident reports, a time-consuming method that was unforgiving for mistakes.
The advent of new technology has been a big help for the department, but criminals also have upgraded their methods.
Dubuque police have had a digital forensics lab for about a decade now, with officers specifically trained for looking into computer, cellphone, surveillance and other technology items for investigations.
"We average about 200 cases a year (in criminal investigations division), and a very high percentage of the cases we look into involve some digital aspect," said Capt. Scott Engleman.
One of the most useful devices available to Engleman's division is a machine that can pull text and call records from most cellphones, giving investigators valuable insight as well as a better time line of incidents. They can even pull up deleted texts.
"It's been huge for us," he said. "I remember using cell records to solve a homicide, harassment cases and sexual exploitation cases."
The technology also is increasingly used by law-breakers. In particular, Engleman has seen a dramatic increase in phone and email scams where criminals ask victims for money or personal information. And with most originating overseas, the department doesn't have many options to pursue scammers.
"That's the frustrating thing," Engleman said. "We only have so many resources locally."
The tech upgrades have extended to squad cars.
Dubuque County Sheriff Don Vrotsos has more than 35 years of experience at the sheriff's department. When he started, squad cars were equipped with three-channel radios and switches for lights and siren, he recalled. Now, his department is preparing to replace the laptop computers in its vehicles.
Speed radars also have come a long way, according to Dubuque police Lt. Scott Baxter, evolving from handheld radars to mounted devices that shoot a continuous beam, meaning drivers are busted before they can react to seeing the squad.
"Fuzz busters" were once a popular illegal option for speeders to detect or scramble a police radar, but upgrades helped police fight back.
"The vast majority of radar/laser jamming products are ineffective and, in some cases, actually enhance the radar/laser targeting distance and performance," Baxter said.
Along with laptops and speed radars, most law enforcement agencies now equip squads with digital video cameras and recording equipment. Scott Crabill said the recording devices have proven an asset for capturing evidence of wrongdoing and settling public complaints.
"An officer can press the mic on his belt or lapel, and it records," Crabill said. "When someone calls and says the officer was rude or unfair, we can just play them the recording."
The Jo Daviess County Sheriff's department is comparable to Dubuque County in terms of equipment in squad cars and the benefit of using laptops to file reports.
"That has definitely saved us time from having deputies come back to the office to write up reports," said Jo Daviess County Sheriff Kevin Turner.
One major tech project for his department right now is installing a new communications system, in compliance with a Federal Communications Commissions mandate. That yearlong project should be wrapped up in two months.
Another tech upgrade the city of Dubuque has invested in considerably is the use of cameras for traffic monitoring and, more recently, for security monitoring. David Ness, a civil engineer for the city, said there are now 250 cameras placed at intersections around Dubuque, initially intended as a way for engineers to monitor traffic flow and adjust stoplights.
"They're typically on 24/7," Ness said.
Dubuque police soon saw the benefit of having this video evidence for investigations, as well as using private and business surveillance.
"Any time we have a crime, we immediately look around to see where the cameras are," Engleman said. "Surveillance is something you don't really think of that's helped us a ton."
Tobin added, "Surveillance will be the wave of the future."
The Dubuque City Council apparently agrees, having approved in July the purchase of 47 new security cameras to be placed in downtown locations.
Currently, Tobin said, footage from 25 cameras can be streamed directly by the emergency dispatch. Ness said that will increase once all department systems are uniform.
Surveillance video has aided officers in tracking and identifying suspects, but the system isn't perfect. Three men arrested as part of a June 2013 incident downtown had their riot charges dropped because they were misidentified from surveillance video.
"It's not foolproof," Tobin said. "It's a useful tool, but it doesn't replace the investigative process: hitting the streets, talking to people and developing information."
In Platteville, Wis., that surveillance is even more mobile. Police there recently bought digital video surveillance glasses, using funds donated to the department. Police Chief Doug McKinley said the glasses already helped in identifying suspects and recording offenders.
"So far, they've been a real nice tool for our officers," McKinley said.
Technological advances also changed how cases are investigated. The major example for Dubuque and other law enforcement is the advancement in collecting and processing DNA evidence. Up until the mid-'90s, Tobin said, pulling fingerprints was the prime focus of any investigation to determine suspects - until DNA became more common as a viable tool.
"We still lift fingerprints, but DNA is really the focus today," he said. "But like everything else, it was cumbersome in its infancy."
And while the aid of DNA evidence has been a major factor for law enforcement, Crabill said it also has its drawbacks.
Samples taken by Dubuque police, and at any other law enforcement agency, are sent to the state's crime lab for processing. Crabill said that is the only facility that can process samples, which leads to lag time in getting results back for a case. It's not like in TV and movies, he cautioned, where agencies have DNA labs on-site and can solve crimes instantly.
And the pop culture influence also can cause issues for prosecuting suspects.
"It's the 'CSI-effect'," Crabill said, referring to the TV drama. "Sometimes, DNA is just not there for a case, but the juries expect it. They want the 'smoking gun' ... so it can make our jobs harder."
MODERN AT A COST
While the advances have undeniably had a positive impact on departments, one major drawback is the price tag.
"It's an ongoing expense we have to budget for that wasn't there in the past," Tobin said.
Brent McDonald, police chief in Cassville, Wis., said his equipment is not as advanced as at larger departments, but in a village just shy of 1,000 people, there isn't as much of a need for upgrades, especially with backup available from the Grant County Sheriff's Department.
"It costs a lot of money, and my budget is nil," he said. "We just don't have a need."
While Dubuque police and other departments can print traffic citations, McDonald and his officers still write them by hand. But he noted that Cassville police have still come a long way in his nearly two decades at the department. Cassville was among the first departments in Grant County to put video cameras in squads.
Crabill noted that Dubuque police squads now have upwards of $20,000 worth of technology and other equipment added to them.
Vrotsos also said the sheriff's and police departments are in the midst of a $1.3 million software upgrade for their computer systems, anticipated to go online in April. The system will give officers and deputies more information about prior incidents with a person or a call location, as well as the ability to file reports and information remotely.
The software also will provide citizens with more services, such as the ability to file minor reports online, rather than contacting an officer, as well as access to jail records and inmate services.
In terms of a wish list of technology items, Baxter said Dubuque police are looking into a firearms simulator for officer training, as well as more mobile laptops that can undock from squad cars. The department also is looking into digital glasses with video and audio recording.
Keeping up is costly, but the unanimous opinion at the Dubuque Police and Dubuque County Sheriff's departments is that the benefits of new technology balance out the cost.
"It's expensive, but it's well worth it," Vrotsos said. "We have to stay on top of technology."
Added Crabill, ""When I look back, it's unbelievable how much has changed here. In the next 20-30 years, who knows what will happen. It'll be interesting"
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