Public Safety

Iowa City police beef up investigation ranks after JoEllen Browning homicide, other complex cases

DCI acting as 'force multiplier'

Authorities work the scene April 23, 2017, of a homicide at Lederman Bail Bonds, 518 S. Capitol St., in Iowa City. The Iowa City Police Department investigated that killing and three other homicides in 2017. This year, though, several complex and overlapping cases have caused the department to bolster staffing in its investigations section and also ask the state Division of Criminal Investigation to take the lead role in a homicide investigation. (The Gazette)
Authorities work the scene April 23, 2017, of a homicide at Lederman Bail Bonds, 518 S. Capitol St., in Iowa City. The Iowa City Police Department investigated that killing and three other homicides in 2017. This year, though, several complex and overlapping cases have caused the department to bolster staffing in its investigations section and also ask the state Division of Criminal Investigation to take the lead role in a homicide investigation. (The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Complex and violent crime cases taken on by the Iowa City Police Department’s investigations section this year have led the department to bolster the ranks in that unit and rely more heavily on outside agencies for help.

The section has added a full-time investigator this year, bringing the total to nine. The Street Crimes Action Team, a specialized unit within the investigations section tasked with violent and drug-related crimes in the city, added two detectives and a sergeant.

Iowa City police Lt. Dave Droll, who leads the investigations section, said the need for more investigators was born out of several large cases that overlapped.

“We just had a whole bunch of things that happened during the same time,” Droll said.

The crunch on resources began earlier this year with the investigation into the death of JoEllen Browning. Browning, 65, was found stabbed to death early April 5 in her Iowa City home.

While Iowa City typically has taken the lead on its own homicide investigations — as was the case with four homicides in 2017 — Droll said authorities were deep into a large sex trafficking investigation and couldn’t pull investigators away from it.

“When Browning happened, we didn’t have the resources to throw at that one and we couldn’t abandon the sex trafficking case at that time,” he said. “We had identified some (sex trafficking) victims and when you know you have victims, you can’t just put that on the back burner.”

With that in mind, Droll said the department asked the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation to take the lead on the Browning homicide, which it did.

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DCI Assistant Director Mitch Mortvedt said the agency often has partnered with the Iowa City Police Department on large investigations. He said DCI typically acts as a “force multiplier,” adding more investigators to conduct interviews or analyze crime scenes.

But agencies with a full investigations section don’t often ask to turn over a homicide to the state, Mortvedt said.

“I would say that’s pretty rare where that actually does happen with the larger agencies in Iowa,” Mortvedt said.

Even with DCI taking the lead, the Browning homicide was demanding resources from the Iowa City department, Droll said. Iowa City investigators still were assisting in the investigation. Droll said one investigator spent four weeks doing nothing but crime scene work and submitting evidence in the Browning investigation.

“But, he had a case load and his case load didn’t stop,” Droll said. “That had a huge ripple effect there.”

Iowa City has one police investigator assigned to work with the DCI on the Browning case, which remains under investigation a no arrest has been made.

Droll said the DCI taking charge of that case did, though, free up resources in Iowa City.

“If DCI wasn’t taking the lead, we would have probably two to three investigators working it,” he said. “It allowed us to keep our resources on this other major crime we were dealing with. It also allowed us to deal with other things that are unfortunately occurring all the time, like assaults, sexual assaults, robberies, things like that.”

Still, Droll said the investigations section needed more help.

In April, an officer was reassigned from patrol to investigations. What was meant to be a temporary assignment was extended into May and June before being made a permanent addition, Droll said.

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In June, the department investigated gunshots fired near Mercer Park and elsewhere in the city. It was then that Iowa City police Chief Jody Matherly assigned two detectives and a sergeant to the street crimes team to investigate.

Matherly said he had intended to move a sergeant to street crimes 18 months ago, but the move was delayed by a training grant the department received. While that grant closes at the end of September, the shootings meant more resources were necessary for street crimes.

“We had the shots fired calls that certainly caused great concern for us,” Matherly said. “Our goal is to reduce all crime, particularly violent crime. We want to make sure we take appropriate action. Increasing our personnel in street crimes and the investigations unit was prudent at that time.”

Iowa City is far from the only department that sees violent and complex crimes take a toll on its case load.

The DCI’s Mortvedt said the state agency averages 70 to 80 death investigations a year. And when a death investigation is consuming resources, that sometimes means turning down a request for help from a smaller department on a lower priority case, such as an embezzlement.

“We want to be everything to everybody we can,” Mortvedt said. “You only have so much manpower. You almost have to triage the case loads.”

Like Iowa City, the DCI will be getting a boost in resources soon. Under a bill passed by the Iowa Legislature, the DCI will be adding five new agents. Mortvedt said that will bring the organization up to 26 or 27 agents.

“We’re increasing our manpower by 20 to 25 percent,” he said. “That’s huge.”

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In Iowa City, it’s difficult to know what to expect when it comes to major cases. Droll points to 2017 when the department investigated four homicides. The following year, there were no homicides in the city, but the investigator assigned to those 2017 cases still was involved with them through criminal trials.

Then 2019 began with the sex trafficking investigation and Browning homicide. In the sex trafficking investigation, five Eastern Iowa men were indicted on federal counts in May. “Nobody really knows what normal is,” Droll said.

What will remain consistent is the department’s response to major crimes, Droll said. He said he can’t envision a time when the department won’t need to “call an audible” and move personnel around or ask for help.

“It ebbs and flows,” Droll said. “And we adapt.”

• Comments: (319) 339-3155; lee.hermiston@thegazette.com

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