NORTH LIBERTY — The news was shocking: five robberies in six months, an attempted sexual assault, and a purse snatching in a store parking lot.
For some, it may have seemed the end of small town innocence. For North Liberty Police Chief Jim Warkentin, it’s a symptom of the growing pains common to a rapidly expanding community.
“We’re no longer a small-town agency,” Chief Warkentin said in a mid-December interview with The Leader.
In 2008, the NLPD responded to 12,729 calls for service, a 46 percent increase over 2007. The department filed 571 charges with 455 arrests.
Calls for service include traffic stops, accidents, public assistance calls, animal complaints, and assisting the North Liberty Fire Department.
According to the Chief, it stands to reason that an increase in population would lead to increases in calls for service – and more crime. The department has noticed an increase in what is euphemistically referred to as an “undesirable population,” citizens who repeatedly have brushes with the law.
“The majority of the citizens of North Liberty don’t have any interaction with the Police Department, or if they do, it’s a positive interaction (such as assistance calls),” the Chief said.
“A small percentage of the community has the majority of repeated encounters with the Police Department, and these are typically enforcement-based encounters,” Warkentin continued.
Meleah Droll, Community Relations Officer for the Coralville Police Department, agrees with Chief Warkentin’s assessment.
“Coralville and North Liberty are both growing quickly, and with a surge in population comes a surge in crime,” Droll said.
Currently, NLPD fields 12 officers; 10 full-time, and two part-time. Three full-time officers joined the department in 2007, enabling Warkentin to deploy up to three officers on a shift for what he describes as “more proactive enforcement.” A new full-time officer will join the force Jan. 26, receiving badge number 13. The Chief had hoped to add two officers in 2008, but now the second may be on-hold until March, at the earliest.
The FBI recommends an officer to population ratio of 1.5 officers per every 1,000 inhabitants. Currently, NLPD is slightly below this ratio, and would need 15 full-time officers to meet the recommendation. Warkentin has addressed this disparity by requesting three more officers in the next year. Of course, time and the budget will determine how rapidly staffing will increase.
Whenever NLPD does not have officers available, the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office (JCSO) patrols the community on a contracted basis. Once NLPD reaches 15 full-time officers, Warkentin said he would look into ending the contract with JCSO.
In addition to JCSO, the North Liberty department receives assistance from other agencies such as the state Department of Criminal Investigation (DCI) and the FBI, especially for investigative work. One full-time police officer functions as the NLPD’s investigation officer, but only part of the time. Chief Warkentin would like to increase staffing to the point where the officer would work 100 percent of the time on investigations.
DCI and FBI assistance (in conjunction with the Cedar Rapids Police Dept.) led to the Nov. 26 arrest in Chicago of Charlie Morgan, Jr. for four bank robberies in Cedar Rapids and North Liberty.
“Would we have solved the crimes? Absolutely,” Warkentin said, “but with the help of the other agencies, we were able to solve them sooner.”
Along with an increase in crime also comes the need for more training. Chief Warkentin explained the department pays, within budget constraints, for individual officers to pursue training in specialty areas in which they are interested.. For example, Officer Daniel Huggar is the department’s certified car seat technician, having completed in-depth training on the proper use and installation. The Chief added Officer Huggar is available to inspect car seats when he is on duty, and interested citizens can call the NLPD to schedule a time. The department also now has its first certified firearms instructor.
“Every North Liberty Police Officer is trained in at least one specialty,” Warkentin said, adding the department has been doing more training in-house while also sharing training with the Sheriff’s Office.
In addition to more officers on the street and more training, Chief Warkentin would like to eventually see new quarters for the department. The department’s current location in the Public Safety Building at 25 W. Cherry St. has become too small for the growing force. Administrative and workspace for the officers competes with file and equipment storage, while the evidence room is bursting at the seams.
Chief Warkentin called upon the public for their assistance.
“If they think something looks suspicious to them, and they aren’t sure about it, we’d like for them to call Johnson County (Sheriff) Dispatch at that time. We’d rather respond and have it be nothing rather than go out five hours later and take a report on a broken into car or house,” the Chief said.
The Johnson County Sheriff’s Office can be reached by calling 356-6020. For life-threatening emergencies, callers should use 911. The North Liberty Police Department may be reached for routine business at 626-5724. If the on-duty officers are out of the office, a voice mail can be left for them.