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Iowa Public Safety commissioner: Reach out to women in hiring, do more to support officer mental well-being
DES MOINES — In an interview this week with The Gazette Des Moines Bureau, Iowa Public Safety Commissioner Stephan Bayens addressed a variety of public safety issues including:
Q: How successful has been the effort to recruit more women into law enforcement?
A: “It’s something we’re continually working on. As a state police organization, we may have a little more challenge ahead of us in part because we don’t have the diversity of assignment that a municipal police department has.” (While local departments may have a patrol division, property crime division, family conflict division, sex abuse division and neighborhood-based services division, the department covers the state patrol, narcotics, major cases and fire marshal divisions). He said a lot of a state trooper’s time is spent alone traveling with little backup so it’s also a different kind of assignment. He said his agency has adopted a “30-30 pledge” with a goal by 2030 “to have at least 30 percent of our applicants for our academies be women (which would roughly triple the current number), so we are looking through our policies to find out what are our road blocks, what are our stumbling points, being a lot more intentional about reaching out to women.”
Q: The Legislature passed and the governor signed a “back the blue” legislative package that expanded some immunity for law officers and made other changes. Has that aided in the recruitment of more candidates seeking to become law enforcement officers?
A: “I think it’s been encouraging and helpful. Iowa is probably unique in that vein,” said Bayens, because they trend in many states has been to “somewhat dilute that qualified immunity, make it easier to sue law enforcement and Iowa is one of the few states that actually strengthened qualified immunity and at least put us in line with current federal law. My biggest worry for our folks always is they have to be confident and supported to do their job. The biggest worry I have is if they get to the point where their fear of being sued is so great that they won’t act. I don’t want folks to just sit in their squad cars and turn a blind eye or don’t interact when they should or intervene when they should because they’re just afraid to be sued or afraid that their career would be on the line. There is so much scrutiny in law enforcement now; I think we’re seeing examples of that across the nation.”
Q: Is the Iowa Department of Public Safety seeing an impact from the state’s new permit-less carry law for firearms?
A: Bayens said a Public Safety agency that assists counties in issuing concealed weapons permits reports the number of permit applications has “dropped dramatically,” but he noted “we have seen an uptick” of Iowans being denied when they go through the federal background checks for purchasing firearms. “We don’t know if that’s necessarily that people think it’s easier to get a gun in Iowa, which is not a fact, it’s not true. Or if just by sheer percentages, the number of people going through (federal background) checks we’re just seeing increased denial rates.”
Q: There has been a recent rise in violent crimes nationally. Are you seeing that in Iowa also?
A: “We’re about where we would normally be. We average about 80 death investigations a year. This year we’re at 78.” Bayens said some Iowa cities are dealing with a rash of shootings, noting while Des Moines homicide rate is down at about a dozen, there have been about 70 people injured by firearms, which is high. On the flip side, he said, the number of people driving the violence “is pretty small,” so he applauded the enforcement approach to “bring the rate down by surgically addressing the drivers and causers of violence rather than taking an ax approach” to the problem.
Q: Legislation has been introduced to address racial profiling by Iowa law officers. Is that something that is needed or have public safety agencies found ways to address that without the need for legislation?
A: Racial profiling is already banned by the Iowa Constitution. If our officers were to engage in racial profiling, they’d be violating the constitution. It’s already illegal. Our policy also bans racial profiling in any way, shape or form. We just simply wouldn’t stand for it. The proposed legislation really wouldn’t have impacted much of our day-to-day operations because everything we do is already in line with that. For us, we did not view it as an overly concerning piece of legislation because it comported with what we were already doing.”
Q: Any topic pertinent to public safety we did not cover that you would like to highlight?
A: “An increased focus on officer wellness. That’s something that’s been heavy on my heart. For the first time since data has been recorded, officer suicides now outpace line of duty deaths,” the commissioner said.
“I know traditionally how law enforcement has dealt with the amount of stress and trauma that we have to see every day. Historically, you just keep shoving it in a black box in the depths of your soul and you just pray to God that it doesn’t pop open and spill all over yourself or your family.
“We just have to get beyond that point in law enforcement. We just can’t continue to expect our folks to just bury the hurt and the trauma and the stress that they see every day and just go about their day and be good moms and dads or husbands or daughters or whatever it is. We need to give them the resources and the ability to process a lot of the horrific things that they see. And that’s really been a focus on mine since I’ve been here is to really work on a critical instance stress management team that goes into stressful situations and helps folks walk through and process the emotion and hurt of what maybe they saw. ”