CORONAVIRUS

Eastern Iowa law enforcement shifting priorities in coronavirus pandemic

Judicial order gives more latitude on who goes to jail

Cedar Rapids Officer David Dyckman finishes writing up a call Monday while parked in northeast Cedar Rapids. The Cedar R
Cedar Rapids Officer David Dyckman finishes writing up a call Monday while parked in northeast Cedar Rapids. The Cedar Rapids Police Department has seen its calls for service increase compared with previous years as it steps up making checks on businesses. In one weekend, police conducted 539 business checks in the city. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
/

CORALVILLE — In a typical day, the city of Coralville offers up plenty of chances for police officers to be busy, said Police Chief Shane Kron.

Motorist assists. Shoplifting at the mall. Car unlocks. School and day care visits. Fender benders. But these are not typical days.

“All of that has gone away,” Kron said.

As residents of in the Corridor have shifted their routines in response to social distancing guidelines and closure orders from Gov. Kim Reynolds in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, area law enforcement agencies are adapting, too.

Law enforcement officials said they’ve changed how they respond to some calls and recalculated what warrants a traffic stop. Sixth Judicial District Chief Judge Patrick Grady even issued a court order giving officers his approval to cite and release offenders on crimes that previously would have landed them in jail.

To get a sense of how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted law enforcement, The Gazette requested calls for service and arrests from area law enforcement agencies for a two-week period from March 16-29. The data was compared with that from the same periods in 2018 and 2019.

The Iowa City and Coralville police departments and Linn County Sheriff’s Office all showed significant drops in calls for service.

“There’s just a lot less activity,” said Kron. “You just have less of everything. Shoplifting is down because stores are closed. Accidents are down because there’s no one on the street.”

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Iowa City Sgt. Derek Frank said police are reducing some types of responses, like traffic enforcement for violations not closely related to safety. While someone excessively speeding or running a red light might get pulled over, someone with an equipment violation might not.

“We’re focusing mostly on safety and health-related calls for service,” he said.

Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner said his deputies also are not enforcing some traffic laws “as aggressively” during the COVID-19 outbreak in order to limit exposure and keep the public and his staff safe. However, people shouldn’t expect to just break the law and get away with it.

“I can tell you we’re still arresting drunk drivers,” Gardner said, listing one such offensive that’s being enforced as usual. “We’re still stopping people; still citing and releasing. It used to be the vast majority were taken into custody, taken to jail. Those people are being cited on the scene and being released.”

And while some traffic violations aren’t getting the attention they might typically receive, law enforcement said they are still responding to every call for service they receive. The manner in how they respond to some of those calls has changed, however.

Dispatchers — in addition to the typical questions they ask — are asking if the callers would be comfortable handling the issue with a deputy or officer over the phone.

“We’re still responding to calls for service, we’re just doing it a little bit differently,” Gardner said. “Where we used to make an effort to respond in person to most calls for service, because of the pandemic we’re trying to handle as many calls for service over the phone as possible.”

By taking a less proactive approach to law enforcement and lowering their calls for service, Frank said Iowa City police have been able to operate on minimum staffing levels. He said the idea is to keep officers as fresh and healthy for as long as possible while preparing for a time when COVID-19 could hit the law enforcement community.

“We’re doing this now to prepare for the future,” he said.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Not all area law enforcement agencies are seeing a decrease in calls for service, however. But the departments are taking on new priorities.

The University of Iowa Department of Public Safety has seen its calls remain steady despite a campus largely cleared out of faculty, staff and students. Capt. Mark Bullock explained the department has shifted its focus.

“As far as calls for service and reports for criminal activity, we are experiencing a significant decrease,” Bullock said. “What we’ve done is redirect our focus to a proactive protection of the campus infrastructure.”

Bullock said that in typical times, a busy campus meant plenty of people to spot issues on campus, especially facilities problems. But with buildings now vacant, something as simple as a backed-up sink could go unnoticed and turn into a significant issue.

“It’s times like this that small leaks can turn into major floods,” he said. “We have to be the eyes and ears of campus.”

Additionally, Bullock said UI police are supporting the UI Hospitals and Clinic in their efforts to screen visitors.

The Cedar Rapids Police Department has seen its calls for service increase compared with previous years. Cedar Rapids police have been responding to patrol requests, traffic stops and noise complaints, but also have been focusing on business checks.

In one weekend, police conducted 539 business checks in the city.

“We’re trying to make sure that people are in compliance with the governor’s proclamations,” said Capt. Cody Estling. “Also, business owners know officers are out there. It’s hopefully one less worry.”

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

One thing each of the departments surveyed has in common is a decrease in arrests. On March 17, Grady wrote an order giving his approval to allow officers to cite and release anyone arrested for serious and simple misdemeanors, with some exceptions. Officers were also granted the discretion to “hold those who are intoxicated or resistive until they detoxify or regain composure.”

Area law enforcement said they are complying with the order and largely making custodial arrests only for offenses related to public safety.

For example, someone stopped for driving with a suspended license will be cited and released, while someone accused of committing a domestic assault will go to jail.

“Everybody is doing their part,” said Kron. “Our part is to quit sending people to jail unless they really need to be there.”

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

Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.

Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.