116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
MARION - One night earlier this month, the Marion Police Department staged a takeover of City Hall, training its officers on handling a barricade situation. The temperature was 19 degrees below zero.
'There's a lot of lessons learned when you're doing a tactical operation in negative 19 weather,” said police Chief Joseph McHale.
Since being sworn in as Marion's chief on Dec. 15, 2016, McHale has been learning about his new community and his new department, but he's also been putting his own stamp on the force.
In his first year, he has made numerous changes including:
l Assigning command staff to all three patrol shifts and to the Investigations Bureau.
l Creating the positions of deputy chief, administrative manager and lead communications officer.
l Partnering with the University of Iowa's Public Policy Center on criminal intelligence and data-driven policing.
l Establishing a Crisis Intervention Team to better respond to those suffering from mental illnesses.
l Proposing the consolidation of Linn County's three 911 call centers into one joint facility.
'I don't stop,” McHale said in an interview this month. 'It's not because things are broken. It's because we have the foundation here in Marion. The staff are excellent. The facilities are excellent. And it's incumbent upon leadership here to get us ahead of the curve so we can grow with this community. I intend to set the bar very, very high for the state of Iowa, in terms of law enforcement.”
Former Chief Harry Daugherty retired in June 2016 after 20 years at the helm of the department. Marion City Manager Lon Pluckhahn said the McHale's background as a commander in the Kansas City, Mo., Police Department using data-driven tactics stood out. The city also was looking for someone who could connect with the community the way Daugherty had done during his tenure.
'I think Joe has done a really good job of immersing himself in the community,” Pluckhahn said. 'He dove in.”
There was also a desire to take a 'fresh look” at the organizational structure of the police department and see if there was room for improvement. McHale has not only redeployed his command staff, but has established the first beat structure in the city's history, which will become effective April 1. McHale said that will allow officers to become more familiar with their assigned parts of the city and better respond to crime trends.
'I can hold them responsible,” McHale said of his officers. 'I can say, ‘That's your area. What are you doing ... What are you doing proactively?'”
McHale also has shown a willingness to shake things up outside of his own department. He has pushed to consolidate 911 centers - now separate facilities in Marion, Cedar Rapids and Linn County - calling it his No. 1 priority for this year.
However, he has opposition to the proposal from Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner, who has said he does not believe consolidation would be cost effective or in the best interest of county residents.
For his part, McHale said he's not worried about ruffling feathers as the new guy in town.
'I think it's actually a huge advantage for me because I don't have the personal relationships,” he said, while also expressing his respect for Gardner. 'I'm not tied to the ‘this is the way we do things.' I have my eye on what's in the best interests for the citizens of the city of Marion.”
That said, McHale has forged relationships with his law enforcement colleagues. Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman - who met McHale several years ago when he traveled to Kansas City to learn more about its police strategy - praised McHale as being 'extremely positive” and 'high energy.”
'He's relentless,” Jerman said. 'Working, wanting to gain knowledge of the community of Marion and also to work collaboratively with his other law enforcement partners here in Linn County.”
The police department has hired its first data analyst in order to sort through information to be more proactive in policing efforts. This method already was demonstrated in part with Operation Clean Sweep, which saw Marion and Cedar Rapids officers and Linn County deputies contacting people in the community potentially affiliated with violent incidents and offering them assistance in an effort to keep them from turning to crime.
'This type of intelligence-led policing will allow MPD to be more focused in our proactive efforts and will increase community trust by concentrating our officers on the small percentage of people who cause the majority of problems,” McHale said.
As a city that touts itself as one of the safest in Iowa - with only one homicide in 2017 - the question could be asked why these policing changes are necessary.
For Pluckhahn, it comes down to policing more effectively. He said an officer could have a 40-square-block beat, but use data analysis to concentrate on the four blocks that see the most troubling activity.
'It really allows you to focus those resources where they are going to do the most good,” Pluckhahn said.
McHale said the changes he's made are about increasing the efficiency and accountability of the department and providing the best service to the city.
He points to the growth of Marion and the 'urban transience” of criminals in the Corridor who don't adhere to geographical boundaries.
'You can never sit still,” he said. 'If you're not changing, if you're not adjusting constantly, you're probably falling behind.”
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