Public Safety

New sheriff in town in Johnson County

After 16 years, Pulkrabek turns over reins

Sheriff-elect Brad Kunkel stands for a photo Wednesday at the Johnson County Sheriff's Office in Iowa City. Current Sher
Sheriff-elect Brad Kunkel stands for a photo Wednesday at the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office in Iowa City. Current Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek is stepping down after four elected terms in office. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — For the first time in 16 years, Johnson County will have a new sheriff.

After winning four straight terms and never being opposed after his initial victories in the 2004 Democratic primary and general election, outgoing Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek likely could have stayed on for another term. But, Pulkrabek said, he wanted to follow the lead of his two predecessors and retire after four terms.

“Do you want someone staying in office forever?” he asked. “I thought it was time to go.”

After he announced his retirement, Pulkrabek launched a bid for the Iowa House District 73 seat. But he lost to incumbent Republican Bobby Kaufmann in the Nov. 3 election.

Taking Pulkrabek’s place as Johnson County’s new sheriff will be Det. Sgt. Brad Kunkel. After defeating Al Fear in this year’s primary, Kunkel cruised to an uncontested victory in the general election. Now, Kunkel said he’s ready to lead and deliver on his campaign promises.

“I’m just so thankful and grateful the public has faith in me,” Kunkel said. “They had the faith in me and they support the sheriff’s office … That’s because of the hard work of past administrations and the good job that everybody who works here does every day.”

Pulkrabek announced his retirement May 1, 2019, and effectively endorsed Kunkel that day on Facebook. Kunkel, in turn, announced his candidacy shortly after. But Kunkel was not just handed the endorsement, both men say.

Kunkel said he’s been preparing to possibly follow in Pulkrabek’s footsteps for at least a decade through seeking educational opportunities and involving himself in the community. Pulkrabek said he and Kunkel talked about his interest in becoming sheriff one day, but Pulkrabek said he wanted to wait before endorsing.

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“I wanted him to work as hard for the office as I did to show the people he really wanted it,” Pulkrabek said. “He worked his tail off. … He just made himself the logical choice to succeed me.”

The result is a much smoother transition than when Pulkrabek prepared to take office 16 years ago. After a contentious primary and election in 2004, the previous administration didn’t make an effort to ease Pulkrabek into office, he recalls.

“There wasn’t any communication or transition, really,” he said. “I was allowed to work days and work on stuff I wanted to work on. But there was no sort of transition, no smooth hand off.”

Aside from selecting his first and second deputies, Pulkrabek said the lack of transition left questions unanswered and decisions couldn’t be made. He couldn’t work on the budget for the office he would be leading.

This time around, Kunkel said he’s been working closely with Pulkrabek and the outgoing administration, gleaning institutional knowledge and insights along the way. Kunkel said he’s worked with Pulkrabek and his team on hiring, promotions and other staff changes necessary with his ascension to sheriff.

The sheriff’s job pays about $150,000 a year.

Lt. Randy Lamm will serve as Kunkel’s chief deputy and Sgt. Matt Hendricks will serve as second deputy, creating a domino effect in terms of hiring and promotions.

Kunkel also already has presented his proposed budget to the Board of Supervisors.

“I think it sets up the office for a better transition period,” Kunkel said. “It’s been wonderful to have this opportunity to work through the end of their careers.”

Pulkrabek said that collaborative transition benefits the public.

“It’s a really big deal,” he said. “Having a smooth transition where (the public knows) we’re not lacking a bunch of detectives or a bunch of command staff — a smooth transition just makes a big difference for everyone involved, including the people we serve.”

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It’s the people — those he had worked with and those he served — that Pulkrabek said he’ll miss the most. He joined the sheriff’s office in 1985.

“All I ever wanted to do since I was a kid was be a cop,” he said. “When I became sheriff, I really was no longer a cop on the street. I miss those days of being out on patrol, having interactions with people, helping people … things like that.”

Pulkrabek said he’s proud to have modernized the sheriff’s office — adding mobile data terminals and dash cameras to every squad car and outfitting deputies with body cameras. During his tenure, he championed the creation of the county’s Joint Emergency Communication Center and helped hire the first jail alternatives director. Pulkrabek also was involved with the Iowa State Sheriffs and Deputies Association, serving as president of the organization.

Without hesitation, Pulkrabek listed the failed attempts to fund a new Johnson County Jail or Justice Center as his biggest regret.

He believes a new jail still is sorely needed, but he’ll be leaving it up to Kunkel to decide how to address that.

“Obviously, right now during the pandemic our (inmate) numbers are down and we’re keeping them down,” he said. “Everything is different. It’s hard to say where that will go.”

Kunkel said at some point the county and its residents will have to decide the best use of its tax dollars — Band-aid fixes for the nearly 40-year-old jail or a new facility.

“We’ll have to revisit it again at some point,” he said. “Our jail alternatives has obviously been very successful. We’re doing what we can to provide those alternatives and look at other ways to provide services. … While those work well, we can’t lose sight of the fact that crime does still happen and we still need to protect victims. The need for the jail hasn’t gone away and the desire to have a safe and efficient jail is of the utmost importance.”

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Kunkel’s two top campaign goals were the creation of a domestic violence response protocol and hiring another deputy to free up a detective to assign to a computer forensics task force.

There’s also the matter of responding to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic and societal changes brought on by this summer’s Black Lives Matter movement. Kunkel said the sheriff’s office already has in place many of the changes protesters were seeking. He plans to continue a commitment to best practices in law enforcement.

“It’s reassuring to know that Johnson County, Iowa, continues to be a leader in a lot of areas,” he said. “I’m confident we can continue to lead in those efforts.”

Last Thursday, Pulkrabek was still in the office he’ll occupy for a few more weeks, reflecting on old calls for service and reading Christmas cards sent years ago by supporters.

He said he plans to “just take it easy for a while” when he leaves.

“I want to believe that the people were happy and satisfied with the job we were doing,” he said. “It really is a job that’s for the people and of the people. If the people are unsatisfied, they’ll make a change and they’ll do it at the voting booth.”

“For them to not want to change for them to continue selecting my name … is a real honor. It’s just been one of the biggest honors of my life to serve in this position.”

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

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