Public Safety

University Heights police force seeks stability under new chief

Kelsay knows the obstacles and has a plan to end the turnover

A University Heights squad car. (Gazette file photo)
A University Heights squad car. (Gazette file photo)

UNIVERSITY HEIGHTS — In the past several years, the University Heights Police Department has seen an extraordinary amount of turnover, not only in officers but in leadership.

Last month, the police department saw one of its lowest staffing levels when Chief Nate Petersen resigned and three other officers left for other departments.

“When I started on April 18, there was one officer left — the chief was gone, one officer had left prior to that and two officers went out the door at the same time as the chief,” said new Police Chief Troy Kelsay. “That left one officer on a five-man department.”

City Council member Silvia Quezada said she believes the department’s manpower woes stem from the inability to compete with surrounding agencies.

“My biggest struggle is that as a small town, we just don’t have the economies of scale to be competitive, and in the last five years, since Chief Ron Fort retired, we’ve had five police chiefs leave the police department,” she said.

With the city’s location and size — slightly larger than a quarter of a square mile and surrounded by Iowa City — it can be difficult to retain some officers, Kelsay said.

“(University Heights) is a small community, and while they pay well and have a nice benefit package and have a lot to offer relative to its size, it sits smack dab in the middle of Iowa City, Coralville is just minutes away, you also have the North Liberty Police Department within the county, and the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office,” he said.

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A senior officer at the Coralville Police Department earns a salary of approximately $70,000, Kelsay said, and, as of July 1, an officer with the Iowa City Police Department will top out at about $78,000.

“University Heights just can’t compete with that,” he said. “The city is upping officer pay — as of July 1 a senior officer will earn $58,000 — and while that is very good compared to many agencies their size, it’s tough to retain an officer when they can go across the dotted line on the map and work a few streets over and potentially make tens of thousands more.”

The police department’s budget continues to increase, Quezada said, eating into funds for city services such as road and sidewalk maintenance.

“The (police department) budget has increased more than 40 percent after adjusting for inflation,” she said. “And when I compared it with Iowa City, we are paying more than twice per capita for our police department and we are not a full service police department at all.”

The fact the department is not “full service” is likely another reason officers are leaving after only a few years, Quezada said.

“We don’t have a detective service, so if we were to have a homicide, we don’t have a detective on staff,” she said. “And we don’t have K-9 services, so if we needed a K-9, we’d have to call out for one.”

That’s why Quezada said she has advocated looking into what the surrounding departments can do to supplement services, but the idea has gotten little traction.

Finding the right fit

For Kelsay, who at 57 served a long career with the Iowa City Police Department before signing a three-year contract to lead the University Heights force, the department’s difficulty in hiring and retaining officers is not a reason to be discouraged, instead he said, it’s an “opportunity to rebuild.”

Kelsay said he believes the department in the past has focused on recruiting officers who, due to where they are in their careers, would see little benefit to staying at the University Heights department for a long period of time.

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“Historically what UHPD has done is hire officers that — even though (they) are well-intentioned and committed — they are in the early stages of their career,” he said. “So they get hired, they go for training and then they work for a short period of time — typically two years or less — and then they move on to another agency. And I don’t fault those officers at all.

“Young officers — officers at the beginning of their careers — they tend to be looking more for what opportunities the department has to offer, whether that be career advancement, promotion, or whether that include specialty assignments such as investigations, K-9 officer, crime scene investigator or what have you,” the chief added. “And University Heights just doesn’t have those things to offer.”

Additionally, he said, younger officers are likely going to be less anchored in the community and able to move around the state for better opportunities.

“What I am doing is reaching out to officers who are toward the end of their careers, and it may be that they are eligible to retire,” Kelsay said. “Officers at that point in their life typically have established families, they have children, they have homes in the area, they aren’t looking to build a career, they aren’t looking to become something else, they’ve already done all that.

“These officers that I am talking about and am interested in recruiting, they are very happy in the community,” he said. “They are not looking to go anywhere and they’ve long gotten out of their system the need to be in foot pursuits or roll around on the ground in a bar fight. They just enjoy being law enforcement.”

There is also a potential financial benefit to these recruits, he said, as an officer can retire at 55, collect a percentage of their pension and, depending on the pension system, go to work full-time for University Heights and collect a salary plus benefits.

“I really do think that I will be able to successfully recruit experienced officers and that I will be able to retain many of them,” Kelsay said. “And even if I only get five or 10 years out of these senior officers, that’s worth it because they are bringing 25 to 30 years of experience to the community and the department and sharing that experience with other officers.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

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