IOWA CITY — For as long as he could remember, Iowa City police officer Jacob Belay was interested in the “cool” parts of police work — driving fast and catching bad guys.
But after joining the police department, Belay said he learned there are aspects of law enforcement that he enjoys even more.
“What I like most — to be quite honest — is helping people,” he said. “I feel like I have the right amount of authority and the right place in the community to be able to make the type of difference I want to make.”
Last year, Belay, 30, took on new roles and responsibilities within the department that have allowed him to expand his influence both with fellow officers and in the community. Belay became a field training officer, joined the department’s special response team and completed training to become a drug recognition expert. At drug recognition expert school, Belay finished at the top of his class.
For those efforts, Belay was named the police department’s Officer of the Year in April.
“It was a huge honor,” he said. “I didn’t really see it coming ... I think a lot of time — every officer would say this — our work goes unnoticed. And it’s not that you do the job for the recognition, but when you get the recognition, it makes it that much more worthwhile.”
A native of Decorah, Belay attended the University of Iowa and earned a degree in psychology. After graduating in December 2011, Belay went to work for Systems Unlimited, Four Oaks and later as a Juvenile Court tracker at the juvenile detention center in Cedar Rapids. While working as a Juvenile Court tracker, Belay often had contact with police officers.
“I started to realize I was more geared toward that side of corrections or law enforcement,” he said.
Belay was hired by the Iowa City Police Department in April 2015 and has spent his career has a patrol officer. He said his experience working for agencies such as Systems Unlimited and Four Oaks and in Juvenile Court have helped him become a police officer who can work with everyone in the community, particularly youths.
“I understand how to talk with juveniles,” he said. “I understand how to interact with their parents.”
He also knows how to de-escalate situations without having to rely on force, thanks to his background, Belay said.
On patrol, he showed an early aptitude in finding drunk or drug-impaired drivers. That led to his interest in becoming a drug recognition expert — or DRE — trained in detecting whether someone is under the influence of a variety of drugs.
“I got to a point where I was finding drug-impaired drivers and every time I found one, I needed to find a DRE to do the evaluation,” he said. “It just seemed like the next logical step was to become a DRE so I could do it myself.”
Iowa City Police Sgt. Jerry Blomgren, who nominated Belay for Officer of the Year, noted Belay’s efforts to become a DRE, field training officer and special response team member.
“To me, that’s a pretty good year,” Blomgren said.
Blomgren also praised Belay’s experience in working with juveniles and the attention he gives to crime victims.
“He’s definitely the future of our department,” Blomgren said. “He’s got a very bright future.”
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