While the different law enforcement agencies in southeast Iowa may seem to function similarly to regular citizens, sheriff’s offices and police departments play two distinct roles. Law enforcement officers from across agencies are frequently collaborating on cases and calls, but their jurisdictions and their duties can vary depending on the office or department that they work for.
One of the major differences between police departments and sheriff’s office is based purely on a geographical basis. The Sheriff is responsible for the whole of the county whereas police departments are only beholden to their city. However, officers will often provide backup to other agency’s when needed.
“There’s more space and we get to have that face-to-face interaction with people a little more,” Jared Schneider, Washington County’s sheriff, said.
“It’s all about personal preference,” Rich McNamee, Henry County’s sheriff said. McNamee, who grew up in rural Iowa himself, said he was never interested in working for bigger cities. For McNamee, even Mt. Pleasant is slightly bigger and more crowded than he is used to.
“I like being able to drive out in the county and talk to a farmer for a while,” McNamee said.
Other major differences include the individual freedoms and powers each agency has.
“The sheriff is elected … the police chief is appointed by the mayor. It gives us more freedom … our bosses are the citizens of Jefferson County. If you don’t make them happy, they don’t keep you in office,” Jefferson County sheriff, Gregg Morton said. Morton, who has served as sheriff for seven years and is looking to retire after completing his current term, transferred from Fairfield’s police department to the county sheriff’s office in 1997.
Morton noted that in Jefferson County, it is common for police officers to eventually move to the sheriff’s department.
“Longevity in the sheriff’s department is longer than in the police department and I don’t know why … I think in the last 25 years, the sheriff’s department has taken more from the police department than we ever have because we’ve grown. We used to be 7, now we’re up to 11,” Morton explained. The sheriff also noted that the Fairfield Police Department had five hires in the last six months.
Part of the advantage of hiring from another agency includes being able to bypass certain steps of the process. If a new deputy is already trained and is a certified officer by the state, the time it takes to hire to fill an opening can be cut down by several months.
For both the police departments and sheriff’s offices, potential officers must pass written and physical tests. If hired, new officers will be sent to attend the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy before returning to the police department or sheriff’s office and entering a training period with a more senior officer.
“There are some people who say the police department is the steppingstone for sheriff’s department. There’s no animosity,” Morton added.
On average, sheriff’s department deputies make more than police department officers however, Morton doesn’t feel financial advantage is why officers decide to transfer into his office.
“There’s more freedom. The bosses aren’t always on top of you because you have to be an independent thinker,” Morton added.
The trend of transfers seems to be unique to Jefferson County. Neither Henry County nor Washington County sheriff’s departments follow the same pattern. Furthermore, agencies noted that massive turnover is rare in rural Iowa. Hiring generally depends on the retirements of current officers.
“Usually people who come to the sheriff’s office stay until retirement,” McNamee noted.
Similarly, Mt. Pleasant Police Chief Lyle Murray, who is currently in the process of hiring a new officer due to the retirement of a former officer, noted his department has had good retention rates.
“We have 11 officers with 10 or more years of experience and six have over 20 years of experience. It’s a pretty seasoned department. If people stay here this long, then it probably means it’s a good work environment,” Murray said.
Murray also noted that the city’s police officers make 50 cents less than sheriff deputies to start out, and the gap only grows from there with police officers lagging $1.50 after their first year on the job and $2.50 after their second.
“A part of it is because the county has a larger tax pool,” Murray explained. However, the police chief noted that he feels passionately about making sure his officers receive decent pay for their work.
“Last year there were 24,180 calls in the county and Mt. Pleasant police handled 12,287 of those calls … I think our guys are working very hard all the time with high level crimes, and they do a great job of it, it is time consuming … our city council is very supportive of us and know our officers deserve to be paid comparatively,” Murray said.
Henry County Sheriff McNamee said the difference in pay is, in addition to a different tax pool, also due in part to several extra tasks sheriff deputies and the sheriff’s office as a whole has to deal with. In addition to larger areas covered by its deputies, sheriff’s offices manage county jails, deal with civil complaints and laws, dispatch and other paper services the police department is not responsible for.
“I think what some people don’t realize is that the sheriff’s office is in charge of multiple departments,” McNamee said.
However, despite the differences in jurisdiction and responsibilities, the strength of rural law enforcement agencies seems to lie in their relationships and ties to communities as well as collaboration among agencies.
Washington police officer Brian VanWilligen, who has worked in the city for 15 years, noted that the support of the community is unlike the support he has received in his time working as an officer in different cities. VanWilligen started his career in Oskaloosa and has been working in law enforcement for 29 years.
“It’s really great. We’re really thankful for the support … we have great relationships with the schools … in other parts of the country, where the view of law enforcement is more negative, you don’t get that,” VanWilligen said.
“We’ve got a great working relationship with the sheriff’s office. If we need them or they need us, we’ll be there for each other,” VanWilligen added.
Partnerships among the agencies happen frequently because of the small numbers in rural areas. Across Henry, Jefferson, and Washington County, each sheriff’s office has less than 70 employees in total. Police departments in Mt. Pleasant, Washington and Fairfield all have less than 20 officers each. In Fairfield, all police officers are deputized and able to work on behalf of the sheriff’s department as well.
56-year-old Mt. Pleasant police officer Brad Gillis, who has been with the department for 9 years, noted that he enjoys being in the town because of his relationships he’s developed with people over the years. Gillis grew up in Mt. Pleasant and worked in ministry for 20 years before entering law enforcement.
“Having those relationships with people can definitely be an advantage … the best part is being able to help people through generations. Some people I went to high school with, now I get to help their kids and then their grandkids,” Gillis said.
“Officers in bigger cities usually have a beat that they cover for years at a time and it’s probably similar to being in a smaller town. They also get to know people and families and they become familiar faces to those neighborhoods,” Gillis added.
Mt. Pleasant police officer Keith Dugger echoed similar sentiments about feeling like he could really make a difference working in a smaller department.
“For criminal investigations, we get to take them from start to finish. We don’t have to pass them off to an investigator. We get to see them through and follow up … in some bigger cities, you might take the initial report and never find out what happens after,” Dugger said.
Shamus Altenhofen, who has worked at the Washington Police Department for 10 years, remembers the chaos from his first week on the job, including having to perform CPR on someone who had stopped breathing, and later tragically died, and then his department having to deal with a homicide.
“I grew up in Washington and you always think, nothing ever goes on in Washington … doing this job showed me there’s a lot more that happens,” he said.
“Some guys, they start patrolling and maybe they get a call that goes bad or they see something and they just decide they can’t do it anymore and leave,” the officer said.
“At the end of the day, it all pays off. I have some people and say that eight or ten years ago, they were heading down a really bad path and they’ll come up to be and they’re better and leading productive lives … and that’s worth more than anything else.”