NORTH LIBERTY– In December, the City of North Liberty named police lieutenant Diane Venenga as its 2012 employee of the year. Venenga was cited as, “a solid role model for every officer,” in the city’s press release. Mayor Tom Salm and city administrator Ryan Heiar made the selection, which was open to all city employees.
Since then, Lt. Venenga has been named interim police chief in the wake of chief Jim Warkentin’s resignation earlier this year.
A native of Des Moines, Venenga decided to pursue a career in law enforcement from an early age and credits an eighth-grade job shadow opportunity. “Most kids went to work with their parents or another family member,” she said. “My father was an insurance agent and my mother was a stay-at-home mom.” Neither option seemed appealing, so she requested, and was granted, a ride-along with the Des Moines police department. She was paired with a female officer for an eight-hour shift. “They allowed me to view all kinds of activities, and this was an eye opening experience.”
From that moment on, serving and protecting the populace became her focus. At the age of 14, Venenga joined the Des Moines Police Explorer program, a division of the Boy Scouts for youth aged 14 through 21. Ride-alongs, national conferences and training in all areas of police work became the norm as she rose through the leadership ranks of the program. “My plan at that time was always to work for the Des Moines police department.”
Following high school, she attended the University of Northern Iowa, earning a BA in Criminology and Political Science, and completing an internship with the Cedar Falls police department. Upon her graduation in 1995, she applied with the Black Hawk County sheriff’s office and the Cedar Falls police department. The sheriff’s office offered a job, and it was off to the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) for certification. Upon completion of the ILEA program, she worked four months in the Black Hawk County jail, a typical assignment for new deputies. Then the Cedar Falls police department offered her a job as a street cop. “I jumped at the opportunity and started my patrol officer experience. I stayed there for three years until another officer told me about an opportunity with the start-up of a brand new police department,” she said.
That officer was Warkentin and the new organization was being formed in North Liberty. Venenga became the North Liberty police department’s (NLPD) second officer and began patrolling the streets in October 1999. Venenga said it was very uncommon to hear about a new police department being formed, and called it, “a great career opportunity.” She and her husband moved to North Liberty, but it was originally intended to be a short-term move. “The plan was to assist in the start-up for a couple of years, and then we would move to someplace warmer.”
Thirteen years later, she’s still here and not likely to be going anywhere else anytime soon. “I still feel there is work to be done, and there is a positive impact I can have on the department and the community. I am still here trying to make a difference,” she said.
The growth of the city has been both a challenge and a reward to Venenga. “This department is not like other agencies that have 100- to 150-year-old traditions, expectations and models. With each new officer comes new challenges and ideas.” She said the majority of the NLPD’s officers have previous law enforcement experience, and the North Liberty department capitalizes on that to determine what does and does not work well.
“We are able to take what is the best practice from another community and try to implement that into our policing model. We are striving for the most effective, efficient, and professional standards for serving the community of North Liberty,” said Venenga.
She also credits other area law enforcement agencies and personnel for sharing their best practices, and offering their observations and perspectives in policing while the NLPD continues to grow and evolve. “I look forward to seeing where North Liberty ends up. I see a lot of potential in this town,” said Venenga.
Venenga has received advanced training in several aspects of law enforcement including: field training officer, bike patrol, crime scene investigation, search and seizure, investigations involving crimes against persons; as well as additional training in the use of the handgun, shotgun and tactical rifle. Much of this training has been held in Des Moines, and she is quick to point out with family in the area, she is able to stay with them. Aside from the opportunity to spend time with relatives, this also saves the taxpayers of North Liberty money for lodging. “I have continued to try to share the cost with the department if there is advanced training I wish to attend an can justify as a benefit to the department.”
Being nominated by a fellow officer for employee of the year and being selected was, as she said, “a great honor. I know there are several city employees that also deserve the award because of their abilities, actions, accomplishments and continued effort to try to make North Liberty a great place to work and live.” The younger employees will be the city’s future leaders, she said. “I want to try to share or pass on what knowledge and experiences I have gained to make them more successful.” She said working in North Liberty has been an honor, “and I look forward to future opportunities to continue my service.”
The NLPD currently has 17 sworn officers (including Venenga) with three having joined last year, and serves a community of over 13,000 residents.