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Area police join forces to form SERT team

The plan will unite officers from North Liberty, Coralville and Johnson County law enforcement
Standard-issue equipment used by the Johnson County Sheriff’s tactical team. The department plans to join forces with members of the North Liberty and Coralville police departments to create a Special Emergency Response Team (SERT), to be deployed for high-risk operations. (photo by Cale Stelken)

North Liberty Leader
NORTH LIBERTY—The North Liberty Police Department (NLPD) is joining two local law enforcement agencies to create a Special Emergency Response Team (SERT). The plan will unite officers from North Liberty, Coralville and Johnson County law enforcement departments to handle emergency situations.
“This is for high-risk operations. It will be a tactical team,” explained North Liberty Police Chief Diane Venenga. “It will be making entries into homes, residents, buildings, schools when needed for hostage situations, barricaded subjects, high-risk entry on search warrants.”
On Nov. 28, the agreement between Johnson County, the City of Coralville and the City of North Liberty for Tactical Team Training and Response was discussed during the North Liberty City Council meeting, where it passed unanimously. Chief Venenga addressed the council.
“Being a smaller department, we don’t have 17 officers to deploy just for one tac team,” she explained. “So this was a great opportunity for us to join an existing team.”
The idea was initiated by Chief Venenga, who cited her department’s limited staff as well as the cost and time required for training as preventing the NLPD from having its own tactical team. She presented it to her officers with the idea of strengthening the area’s emergency response capabilities.
“Coralville was my first thought, because they’re close and they had an existing team. They’re also running into some number issues,” Chief Venenga said. “I thought this would be a perfect opportunity for us to approach the sheriff, and he graciously was interested.”
Although the county is interested in taking more, Chief Venenga plans to provide just two North Liberty officers at this time. Supervisors and administrators are not allowed on the team.
“What we didn’t want was to short our patrol when they leave for training. Coralville can probably supply four or five just because of the number of officers that they have. Johnson County has 10,” she explained.
“We’re hoping that, when everybody is trained and up and running, there’ll be 17 officers and deputies that they can choose from, which would be a great number,” Chief Venenga summarized.
Coralville Police Chief Shane Kron supported the decision based largely on staffing issues.
“Over the course of two years, we lost half of our team; two officers went to bigger departments, and two officers left police work all together,” he lamented. “Two of the current team members have nearly 20 years of team experience and are looking to step down from their team assignment.”
Chief Kron cited his experience with Coralville’s emergency response team and emphasized the importance of adequately staffing such a task force.
“Our team has nine positions. I was the team leader for nearly 15 years; seldom did I encounter a situation where we didn’t need all nine members,” he said. “More often than not, we use patrol officers to do the non-entry tasks because nine people just barely covers the entry.“
Various incidences in recent years have further encouraged Chief Venenga to pursue the new approach.
“I can come up with at least one incident per year since I’ve been chief– and it’s been four years now– that it would’ve been really nice to have this available,” she told the city council.
She went on to recall a September incident in which the Johnson County team was called in to evacuate a house on David Lee Court after a gun was fired inside.
“David Lee Court is a prime example. It was nice to call and make that referral, and they were willing to come in and help,” she said, “If we did not do this, we would be asking the state tactical team to come in, and that’s anywhere between two to four hours just for their response because it’s from across the state,” she elaborated.
Detective Randy Lamm, Team Commander for the Johnson County SERT, agreed with the need for an expanded tactical division.
“When you do an entry on a house, you’re limited to 11 people, and depending on how many individuals you come across inside or what the layout is, you lose people pretty quickly. It becomes less and less safe as you’re going through the home,” he cautioned.
“If you throw in another six or eight people onto the team, it just makes it safer for everybody. You’re not stretched so thin,” he asserted.
The tactical team will train one day every month at various locations, as described by Detective Lamm.
“It’s all over the place. A lot of the time we look for houses that aren’t occupied, that are maybe up for sale– buildings like that, that we just go and practice the movement, the flow through the structure.”
Team members with be equipped with specialized skills, and each department will pay for its own equipment as well as salary and fees while attending training. The team will collectively deploy out of a shared Johnson County truck.
“The equipment alone is probably approximately $5,000 for the vest and helmet and the weapon systems,“ Detective Lamm said, noting the various specialty skills.
“There’s people that have extra training that are snipers. They do additional shooting, go to additional schools and training. There are hostage negotiators that also have additional training,” he said. ”We’ll be starting to work them into our training with the whole team. There are people trained with less lethal and gas munitions that receive additional schooling and training. It just depends on what the scenario is.“
Chief Kron offered details on the extent of training needed.
“Because of the high-risk nature of the assignment, the position specialization and the teamwork required, a new team member will spend a minimum of a year in a non-critical assignment– usually last person in the door– while they continue to train in their primary position.”
Members of the NLPD anticipating joining the new tactical team have yet to be assigned specialized skills. This will be addressed once the team is formalized.
While the SERT has been approved by the North Liberty City Council, Coralville City Administrator Kelly Haworth confirmed the Coralville City Council will have it on the agenda in the near future. Chief Kron is optimistic of its approval.
“The council has been tremendously supportive of the police department in my short time as chief and has listened intently when I believe we can improve the efficiency or the effectiveness of service delivery,” he said. “I do think this makes sense from an efficiency and effectiveness standpoint and that is my primary concern.”
“This is a great opportunity for North Liberty, and we appreciate the sheriff’s willingness to allow members from outside agencies to join,” Chief Venenga said. “It is a team that has been rarely needed, but completely necessary for handling an emergency to protect life and property.”