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New police officer to cover NL school beat

NLPD will gain personnel through $125K COPS grant
North Liberty Police Chief Diane Venenga. (Leader file photo)

By Chris Umscheid
North Liberty Leader
NORTH LIBERTY– Like the community it serves, the North Liberty Police Department (NLPD) is growing again.
The force, currently with 17 full-time officers, was recently awarded a federal, three-year Community Oriented Police Support (COPS) COPS Hiring Program (CHP) grant in the amount of $125,000 to hire an additional officer.
The grant is part of $123,882,021 awarded nationwide, funds earmarked to cover up to 75 percent of the approved entry-level salary and benefits for a full-time officer for three years. The city is obligated to put up a 25 percent match. According to the COPS program, in addition to hiring a new officer, departments receiving the funds are also able to rehire an officer laid off, or scheduled to be laid off, due to budget cuts.
The grant process is competitive and the application process opened on May 21 with a June 23 deadline. Applications numbered 1,296, requesting funding for 3,469 positions, for a total of $425,734,755.
CHP consideration was given to: homeland security for protecting critical infrastructure; homicide/gun violence to support the attorney general’s priority goal of reducing gun related violent crime; school-based policing through School Resource Officers (SROs) placing officers in the schools; and trust problems including issues of fairness and impartiality, transparency problems, respect problems, “and other trust-related problems” according to the COPS website.
NLPD’s grant is for an SRO to work with the community’s schools including the future Liberty High School. The grant requires those departments requesting funds under the school-based policing category to deploy the grant-funded officers as SROs, and are not allowed to change that deployment post-award.
The NLPD is already in an active partnership with the schools, according to Chief Diane Venenga.
“Right now with two school districts and multiple daycares, we have received requests for programming or safety presentations by officers. We have received multiple requests to have officers near the schools at the beginning and end of the day. There have been traffic related issues, school bus violations (where drivers do not stop for the stop arm and flashing lights), and parking problems,” she said. “The officers have assisted with disruptive students/parents, as well as planning with other partnerships to provide the best resources for children and their families.”
The chief said the department recently sent an officer through SRO school, who will fill in anytime a public request is made.
“He is supplementing his time when not on town calls to be available, near or around the schools before, during and after on his regular patrol shift,” Venenga said. The officer has been requested to attend community events, and some students already know him from school visits. Venenga called this a relationship-building program so that students, staff and parents feel comfortable with the officer. “I feel there is more safety and public education that we can be providing and I expect this officer will fulfill that need and role.”
Venenga estimates the current officer is spending about 10 percent of his time with the schools and daycares, and 90 percent on regular street patrol. With the new officer, Venenga feels the position can grow. “So that when the new high school does open up, we are not just starting the process of defining roles, expectations, and response options. The relationships should already be formed and is a proactive approach,” said Venenga.
The officer will also be a resource person for students, families and staff, “to help with problem solving strategies,” and will also be able to respond to emergencies and investigate reported crimes involving juveniles.
“I expect this program will help with an improvement in quality of life issues for families, neighborhoods and the community that might take longer to handle than one patrol shift,” Venenga added. In addition, the officer will also be a point of contact for safety concerns, answer questions about policing, and will be available to respond to critical issues.
Crime prevention through education will also be a task for the new hire. Chief Venenga said it presents opportunities to educate students, staff and parents on crimes, the law and best, safe practices.
“I see this officer being able to follow up more with runaways, providing community resources to children and families for other services, and public education. This officer might also be able to prevent, deter, and follow up on criminal acts in and around our schools and daycares, impacting our youth,” she said.
Since 2013, 30 juveniles have been arrested in North Liberty. Statistics show one arrest for harassment, four assaults, seven thefts, four burglaries, two alcohol violations, eight drug violations, one reckless use of fire and three arrests for interference. Adding calls for missing or runaway juveniles, vandalism and loitering, there were 58 related calls for service from 2013 to the present.
Two hundred fifteen law enforcement agencies received grant money through the COPS Hiring Program, leading to 944 officers hired or rehired: 911 for new positions, 13 officers rehired with the grant money, and 20 officers scheduled to be laid off who were able to be retained . In addition to North Liberty, grant applications in Des Moines (two officers for $250,000), Norwalk (one officer for $125,000) and West Des Moines (one officer for $125,000) were approved.
The NLPD has relied on COPS grants in the past to add to its staff, including Venenga, herself hired with a COPS grant.
“Early on in the history of NLPD, two full-time positions were funded through the COPS hiring grant in 1999-2001,” Venenga said. “A part-time position was funded in 2000 through COPS.”
While relying on federal grants can be risky, given the ebb and flow of the political winds, Venenga has no concerns about finding the money to keep the officer after the grant expires.
“This is a three-year grant and because of our growing population, I anticipate that our police force will also continue to grow with the community needs,” she explained. “I am not concerned with the grant position because I anticipate we would continue to hire officers to keep up with the population expansion.”
As of the North Liberty City Council’s Oct. 28 unanimous vote to accept the grant and provide the matching funds, the hiring can now begin. “We will start with a list (of applicants) and select the best candidate.” The candidate may or may not already be a certified law enforcement officer If not, he or she would be sent to the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy located at Camp Dodge in Johnston. The officer will undergo the department’s regular training process, which includes time riding with a Field Training Officer, followed by solo patrol.
“We are honored to have received this grant to help fund the position,” Venenga said. “This position will help further the department’s vision by proactively identifying areas needing improvement, and provide the safety and a higher level of service to our community.”