IOWA CITY — New Johnson County Sheriff Brad Kunkel has wasted no time diving into his new role and responsibilities.
“It’s been very busy,” Kunkel said. “Obviously, there’s a lot to learn and a lot to absorb going forward.”
A detective sergeant in the sheriff’s office up until a few weeks ago, Kunkel now oversees every aspect of the sheriff’s office from the jail and patrol to civil services and gun permits.
Kunkel is one of 24 sheriffs newly on the job this month across Iowa. Nearly a quarter of Iowa’s sheriffs left office at the end of their elected terms. Collectively, those sheriffs had 372 years in office and more than 900 years of law enforcement experience, according to Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson, who also serves this year as president of the Iowa State Sheriffs and Deputies Association.
With all 99 of Iowa’s sheriffs running for reelection every four years and the average tenure for a sheriff coming in at 12 to 16 years, Thompson said some turnover is common. This year’s list of outgoing sheriffs had some heavy hitters, though, including Plymouth County Sheriff Mike Van Otterloo, who retired after 30 years as sheriff; and Grundy County Sheriff Rick Penning, who first took office in 1982.
“It’s a little bigger number” this year, Thompson said of the years of experience being lost. “We lost some really highly-tenured sheriffs.”
Now retired after 16 years as Johnson County sheriff, Lonny Pulkrabek still can remember his early days in office.
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While many sheriffs serve as a chief deputy before taking office, Pulkrabek did not have that experience. Nor did he have a smooth handoff from the previous administration after a contentious election in 2004. Instead, Pulkrabek said he can remember sitting down to read the Iowa Code to study all of the references to the duties of a sheriff. Thompson said there are probably more than 1,000 such “codified obligations.”
“I don’t think I was well-versed,” Pulkrabek recalled. “I had a lot to learn and it’s a steep learning curve.”
Pulkrabek said he leaned on neighboring sheriffs for advice, as well as then-Johnson County Attorney J. Patrick White. Pulkrabek said the Iowa State Association of Counties and National Sheriffs Association also put on orientations for new elected officials and sheriffs.
Thompson said the sheriffs and deputies association also offers training for new sheriffs.
“There’s no other job like it,” he said. “There’s no train up. You can have exposure. You can watch from outside the room. But until you wear that hat, until you sit in that seat, there really is no training that truly validates what it is to be sheriff.”
Thompson said the state association he leads has a curriculum that relies heavily on the experience of veteran sheriffs. The program covers the uniqueness of the office and the range of duties and responsibilities that come with it.
Due to COVID-19, the training program, which takes place later this month, will be virtual over Zoom.
“We want to make sure we are the training and safety net for those new sheriffs,” Thompson said. “We want them to look like rock stars to their constituents from day one.”
When Pulkrabek retired, he wasn’t alone in the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office. Joining him were Major Steve Dolezal, Capt. Gary Kramer and Lt. Brian Adolph. Collectively, the men had more than 120 years of experience.
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And while years of experience like that and in sheriff offices across Iowa can’t magically be replicated, Thompson said those offices are a lot like professional baseball teams. A trusty pitcher might retire, but there’s a young fireballer waiting to be called up from the minors already familiar with the organization and the way the game is played.
“You’ve got that minor league pitcher ready to step up,” Thompson said. “That Brad Kunkel has a lot of the same experiences. He wasn’t pitching the no hitter, but he was waiting in the wings in a support role, in the bullpen. He was there, too ... We are constantly evolving sheriffs’ offices across the state in the same manner.”
That evolution can sometimes be necessary. Pointing to the impacts the COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest had on law enforcement in 2020, Kunkel said bringing new blood into the offices can reflect those changes and allow law enforcement to respond to the needs of citizens.
“It’s a new opportunity for almost 25 percent of the sheriff offices in Iowa to take the helm in this new era of law enforcement,” he said. “I think this is a real opportunity for all of us new sheriffs to show we’re paying attention and we’re listening. We’re in a position to move forward and continue to improve our offices.”
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