2019 LEGISLATIVE SESSION

Lawmakers envision more state troopers on Iowa roads

But bill before governor would limit state Attorney General

Sgt. Nathan Ludwig
Sgt. Nathan Ludwig
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After years of coping with a stark decline in the number of troopers patrolling the highways, the Iowa State Patrol could hire 10 more under a measure awaiting action by the governor.

What’s more, the legislation envisions hiring five new special agents to help the Division of Criminal Investigation solve some of the state’s most serious crimes.

“We are very appreciative of the state Legislature’s efforts to give us the resources we need to hire more people,” said Trooper Jason Bardsley, president of the State Patrol Officers Council, the union that represents officers with Iowa State Patrol and the DCI, as well as park rangers and conservation officers with the Department of Natural Resources.

“This has been a priority for SPOC for the past four or five years,” he added. “Adding 10 more troopers and five more agents is a big step in the right direction. And we hope we can continue to add troopers and agents until we get back to our peak numbers, but we know we can’t do that all at once and that it all depends on the available funds.”

The justice system appropriation bill — Senate File 615 — provides a $13 million increase for public safety, corrections, prosecutorial and other state services.

Of that increase, $1.7 million is allocated to hire the 10 full-time troopers with the intention they be assigned to the patrol division, and $350,000 for the additional five full-time agents.

Democrats opposed the bill partly because they said it underfunded some state responsibilities like the prison system. But moreover, they opposed a provision that prohibits the Iowa Attorney General — currently Democrat Tom Miller — from joining out-of-state lawsuits without getting permission. Republicans expressed frustration that Miller had joined in suits that challenged the Trump administration.

The overall bill is awaiting action by GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds.

According to numbers the agency provided, the patrol has a sizable staffing hole to climb out of.

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It has 368 sworn troopers, 291 of which are considered “road troopers” assigned to patrol. That number — 368 — is nearly 10 percent less than the 404 sworn troopers the agency is authorized to employ already.

Rep. Gary Worthan, R-Storm Lake, who managed the bill on the Iowa House floor, said much of the trooper shortage can be attributed to significantly tight public safety budgets over the years.

“The money just hasn’t been allocated to rebuild the numbers, and that’s been my biggest target over the last several years is to get the manpower built back up to where they’re a credible force again,” he said.

The lack of funding coupled with trooper retirements, Worthan said, has led to a constricted state patrol force.

“Iowa State Patrol has struggled for many years with manpower, particularly in the patrol division,” he said. “And that’s not so much due to problems with recruitment and hiring as it is that the money just wasn’t here. So, as troopers retired or left for other opportunities, they weren’t replaced.”

And as the patrol numbers declined, so did the agency’s ability to cover as much ground.

“I remember maybe 17 years ago we may have had an average of five troopers working the midnight patrol shift in the western half of the state,” Worthan said. “Now we might have two. That’s two troopers to cover the entire western half of the state from Minnesota to Missouri. That’s a problem.”

State Patrol spokesman Sgt. Nathan Ludwig said he would not characterize the force as stretched thin, but it has been challenged by the retirements.

“The agency saw large hiring waves in the 1980s and the mid- to late- 1990s,” he said. “Those troopers who were hired in the 80s are already retiring or are eligible to retire. And in the next about 10 years, we’ll start to see retirements of the troopers who were hired in the 90s.”

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Ludwig said the last two academy classes — one graduated in November and one in April — resulted in 38 new troopers and offset some of the retirements.

The legislation states that the five additional DCI agents are needed because of “high turnover rates due to the extensive nature of the casework involved.”

The DCI now is allowed 105 special agents across its many units, including the Major Crimes Unit, the Internet Crimes Against Children Taskforce and those units that manage the sex offender registry and weapons permits.

There now are 99 agents on staff, most assigned to the Special Enforcement Operations Bureau, which has 58, and the Major Crime Unit, which has 22.

DCI Assistant Director Mitch Mortvedt said the division primarily supports local authorities when requested. Bardsley said the DCI could at times find itself where its agents are forced to triage which cases receive the most support.

“I think the Mollie Tibbetts case is a good example of that,” he said. “I know DCI was pulling in agents from every corner of the state, and I’d bet any other cases that surfaced during that time would have to reach a pretty high threshold for DCI to pull agents and resources to work those cases. And we don’t want that. We want to effective for the state and the citizens of Iowa.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

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