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Community News Network

February 13, 2013

Police chief describes benefits of downtown surveillance

Crime reduced by 35 percent in four years

OTTUMWA — Just six years ago, downtown Ottumwa suffered from a high crime rate with fights, thefts and gang activity running rampant.

Today’s downtown is a completely new place. Police Chief Jim Clark addressed the video camera system and its effects on downtown security at Main Street Ottumwa’s “Soup and the Scoop” Tuesday night at the Little Bake Shop.

In 2000, the Ottumwa Police Department responded to 563 calls for service in the downtown area alone, including reports of theft, vandalism, fighting, assault and public intoxication, “all of which impede the revitalization of the area.”

Five years later, calls for service in the downtown area had more than doubled to 1,196, and in 2007, police responded to 2,752 calls for service downtown, which included 125 vandalism reports, 90 assaults and 20 burglaries.

“The downtown area” is referred to as District 20 by officers, which runs from Jefferson Street to Wapello Street (not including the law center) and from the Des Moines River to Fourth Street. This data does not include calls for service in the Church Street area.

“At that time, we had Scooters going rampant,” Clark said. “We had shootings there. And we had the Plowboy going, an after-hours club.”

Numerous rapes were reported at Plowboy, which was run by the Insane Deuces gang out of Chicago and became the front for a multi-million dollar cocaine ring. The club was eventually raided by local, state and federal agents in July 2008, which resulted in the arrests of nine people for conspiracy to distribute cocaine.

“It was a very violent place,” Clark said. “When we did raid the place — and they had no liquor license — they had right at the front door a Pepsi machine that was dispensing cans of beer. Back then, it was described as the ‘Wild West.’”

The OPD put a foot patrol officer downtown soon after, who made 270 arrests in a four-month period. Clark told him to have a “zero-tolerance policy.”

“Either we clean up downtown or we don’t worry about downtown,” he said. “I had a long conversation with our city administrator and said we’re going to arrest everyone for everything and we’re going to clean up downtown. Back then ... there were beer bottles on the sidewalks, used condoms, urine and feces in front of businesses. It was bad.”

With a high crime rate downtown, Clark said businesses won’t move to the area, customers won’t patronize the businesses and those living downtown will move away.

When Clark was in college, he completed a research paper about the use of video surveillance in high-crime rate areas.

“One of the theories of crime is that to commit a crime, a person has to have an opportunity to do it and they have to feel like they’re going to get away with it,” he said. “If they don’t feel like they’re going to get away with it, they tend not to commit the crime. The cameras provide an incentive to people that you’re going to get caught.”

With the help of Sen. Chuck Grassley and Rep. Dave Loebsack, Clark said Congress appropriated $375,000 to the city of Ottumwa for the downtown camera system. That money was used to place computers in each patrol car and to purchase and install a series of cameras downtown.

After seeing the success of the cameras, Ottumwa High School purchased two of its own, one of which sits on Fourth Street and the other on Second Street. South Ottumwa Savings Bank also purchased its own camera, which aided in the arrest of a robber in August.

Clark said the cameras have also helped in some crimes which he cannot talk about due to the pending status of the cases.

“There are lots of cases where the cameras were used that we’ll never talk about and you’ll never know about,” he said. “But they’ve been beneficial.”

He also showed the audience some crimes the cameras have captured, which included car accidents, public urination, a missing child, two assaults, burglary, prostitution and more.

When Katherine Heredia escaped from the correctional facility last month, the downtown camera system caught her in the downtown restroom engaging in prostitution. She was eventually captured.

“She had been convicted on federal sex trafficking charges out of Omaha and was placed in the halfway house here,” Clark said. “Now, I don’t want people thinking we have a whole bunch of prostitutes down there. It was just her and her ‘associates’ at the halfway house.”

While Clark said the cameras are not the “sole solution” to reducing crime downtown, they have helped. Calls for service were reduced by 35 percent from 2008 to 2012, he said.

“It’s important to know where we came from and where we’re going,” Clark said.

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