That was almost the case for Gloria Wehrspann and her son Logan Flesch, who said they were just trying to do the right thing by reporting a disturbance in their neighborhood.
On Jan. 13, Wehrspann and Flesch called 911 to report a vicious fight they heard going on somewhere near their duplex at 209 East 22nd Street in Dubuque. The dispatcher asked for their address, which Wehrspann provided in order to help the police locate the disturbance.
"It sounds like someone was being seriously injured," Wehrspann said. "I've always tried to keep my area, my community and my neighbors safe. If I see anything I'm going to call 911."
The mother and son saw police cars arrive shortly after that, but no officer contacted them for more information, Flesch said. They thought that was the end of that.
Little did they know, however, that the Dubuque Police Department's automated Landlord Notification System generated a letter to their landlord Kathy Bauerly, stating an officer responded to their address for a call nature of "Assault Fight Active Weapon."
In the city of Dubuque, when a caller gives his or her address to a 911 dispatcher, if the address is flagged as a rental property in the city's licensed landlord database and if the nature of the call threatens what police call "quality of life" - an assault or burglary, for example - then that tenant's landlord gets notification that police responded to one of their properties.
This automated Landlord Notification System has been around for three years.
"The system is not perfect," assistant Dubuque police chief Terry Tobin said, adding, "I think it's better than having no system at all."
The system, he said, is designed to alert landlords to the truly problematic and crime-committing tenants by connecting calls for service to rental properties and alerting the respective landlords. However, the system can fail people like Wehrspann: tenants who call 911 to report a crime and give their address but have nothing to do with the incident.
In this case, Tobin said, after the automated Landlord Notification System sent Bauerly the letter, the landlord should have sought more information before starting the eviction process.
"Had [Wehrspann's] landlord taken the time to look a little further into that letter that she received, sought out some additional information from our department as to what the circumstances that had occurred, I don't think this situation would have come about," Tobin said.
Bauerly, however, said the system is rife with problems. She said an automated notification like that paints the picture that both the tenant and the property are somehow flawed. She said it's not her job to "play secretary" and call the police department to determine whether the letter she received was factual.
"The police department should not be putting in writing something that didn't happen on that property," Bauerly said Thursday in a phone conversation.
She acted on the letter she received and put on Wehrspann the burden to prove she and her son were not involved with the incident.
Since receiving notification of pending eviction, Wehrspann made persistent calls to and had conversations with Bauerly and Dubuque's housing and police departments. Eventually, Tobin wrote a letter of clarification to both Bauerly and Dubuque's housing department, stating Wehrspann, Flesch and 209 East 22nd Street had nothing to do with the disturbance except for the 911 call.
Tobin's letter went out on Thursday. That same day, Bauerly dropped the process of evicting Wehrspann and her son.
Bauerly isn't the only person who sees problems with the system.
"For somebody to call 911, you're trying to save lives out there. I thought that was important," Wehrspann said. "But if they're going to take it out of context and they're going to turn around and get you evicted for that reason, then, no...I went through too much."
She said it's likely she won't call 911 again after facing eviction for reporting a crime.
Tobin said the system arose out of Dubuque's Safe Community Task Force and its recommendation that the city work more closely with landlords.
He said the system is automated because dispatch sees about 60 calls for service per week that match with a property on the licensed landlord database. That's too many calls, he said, to comb through the details of each one. After all, he said, the system is designed to catch truly problematic tenants, and in that regard it works.
Tobin said any Dubuque landlord who receives one of these automated notices should call the department for more information before taking any legal action against a tenant.
For information on Dubuque's Landlord Notification System, click HERE.
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