IOWA CITY— Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek is in his second term and would like a third. Pulkrabek will run un-opposed on the June 5 primary election ballot on his way to the Nov. 6 general election.
A Waterloo native, Pulkrabek lived and went to school in LaPorte City before attending Kirkwood Community College and Mount Mercy in Cedar Rapids. The Sheriff holds a BA degree in criminal justice from Mount Mercy. From 1983 until 1985, he worked as a reserve deputy, or “special,” with the Linn County Sheriff’s Office while attending college before hiring on with the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office. Pulkrabek had 19-1/2 years in as a deputy before running for sheriff in a bid to replace 30-year Sheriff Robert Carpenter.
“I think we’ve really done a lot,” Pulkrabek said of his time as sheriff, adding he has enjoyed it, and so far, has no regrets. He became interested in law enforcement at a young age after befriending officers in LaPorte City. By eighth grade the path was set, Pulkrabek was going to be a law enforcement officer with the goal of helping people in need.
“If you don’t want to help people, you’re in the wrong business. People call us because they need our help,” said Pulkrabek.
Providing more deputies to help people in need is one of Pulkrabek’s accomplishments. The patrol division consisted of 20 deputies when he took office, and has increased to 27. Pulkrabek has a goal of 30 giving the office a reasonable ratio of one officer for each 1,000 citizens. He estimates 30,000 living in the rural areas of the County for which his office is responsible. Increasing patrol staff not only allows more attention to be paid to the rural areas, but also increases the safety of the officers, with three cars out on the road at all times rather than just two as was the previous standard.
Other accomplishments Pulkrabek claims are remodeling the sheriff’s office to maximize the use of the available space and initiating a variety of programs in the jail. The areas previously used by dispatchers and the Emergency Management Agency (EMA) were re-purposed into a new booking room and holding cells for the jail. As for the jail itself, Pulkrabek said, “we jumped in and tried to add what we could (to the cramped facility).” He was in from the start as discussions began about building a new Justice Center.
Pulkrabek started a Mental Health Diversion and Jail Alternative program that treats mentally ill inmates who have committed less serious crimes. Putting them into treatment programs not only helps the subjects, it frees up jail beds. It also follows Pulkrabek’s assertion that many inmates have an underlying mental and/or substance abuse problem.
“Jails are full of mentally ill (people),” Pulkrabek said. “Jails are the largest healthcare providers for the mentally ill.” To address substance abuse, he brought MECCA Services into the jail to perform substance abuse assessments. Often these assessments are required as a condition of release from the jail. He said the county will pay for these visits if the inmate is unable to do so. Pulkrabek noted many inmates are forced to remain in jail as they do not have the means to bond out, and consequently are unable to afford court-ordered assessments.
Pulkrabek also said he has expanded the work release program, utilizing GPS technology to monitor these inmates. In an attempt to get the word out about the crowded conditions of the current jail, he also put up a virtual tour of the facility on the web. It is accessible from the sheriff’s webpage.
The sheriff says his ongoing, and primary goal for another term, is to get the proposed Justice Center built. Voters in Johnson County will see a bond referendum on a ballot at some point this year after contentious discussion by the board of supervisors on how much money to ask the taxpayers to put up for the project.
“We’ve got a long ways to go to get people to understand what we’re asking for and why. It’s tough. People believe they’re taxed too much now.” He surmised part of the rub is asking people to pay for something they feel doesn’t affect them. The majority of the residents of the county have no contact with the sheriff’s office or the courts, making the jail something Pulkrabek called, “out of sight, out of mind.”
He reiterated the age of the courthouse, built in the late 1800s, and how it hasn’t grown with the needs of the county. Neither has the jail.
To alleviate the space shortage, Pulkrabek began housing inmates in other counties’ jails. In addition to rising costs of transporting the prisoners, Pulkrabek also bemoans the difficulty in offering rehabilitative, substance abuse and other treatments to these inmates.
The Sheriff sees the Joint Emergency Communications Center (JECC) as the greatest public safety success to date. He acknowledges the center– which combined Iowa City police and fire dispatchers with his own in a separate, stand-alone facility governed by its own policy board– has had its share of detractors and controversies. Currently the facility is seeking another executive director, the fourth since its founding. Much of the disagreement has been over the budget, with supervisors and even some area legislators disappointed that the anticipated cost savings has not materialized as the facility’s budget continues to increase.
Pulkrabek said he is comfortable with the current $3 million plus budget, as the center operates under a very tight budget. He said the combined dispatch center in Scott County uses leased equipment while the JECC owns all of its hardware is an example of cost savings not readily seen.
Pulkrabek has been a vocal opponent of proposed “Stand your Ground” legislation and of the “shall issue” mandate for acquiring and carrying handguns. “Shall issue” spelled out a list of criteria that would disqualify some from owning a gun. Pulkrabek said only a handful of Iowa sheriffs supported the measure. Under the previous “may issue” law, sheriffs had more discretion to determine who could or could not have a handgun.
He takes issue with the notion that only law abiding citizens apply for guns, citing examples of applicants with drunk driving convictions, substance abuse and domestic abuse convictions in their past. The current law only looks at the last two years, while the sheriff would prefer a gun owner, especially one looking to carry, have a clean record for at least the last decade.
“We understand people make mistakes. We understand they can make better decisions and that they can change,” said Pulkrabek.
When it comes to “stand your ground,” legislation, which would add further legal protection to those who use deadly force in self-defense, Pulkrabek is firmly opposed.
“It is my opinion that it gives somebody the opportunity to kill somebody and not face arrest; it’s one’s word against the other, and if the other is dead we’ll never get their side of the story.” Iowans already have the right to self-defense, he said. “I put a lot of value in human life and I hate to see the ability to take it simplified.”
Pulkrabek insists he believes in the second amendment, which guarantees the right to keep and bear arms. However, he believes it applies to one’s home and not the streets. He has said previously he believes anybody who can legally own a gun, should. But, he added, “I’m not ‘pro-gun,’ I’m ‘pro-public safety.’” He questions if the country’s founding fathers could have anticipated today’s society and the firepower available to the average citizen.
Pulkrabek said he initially pursued the sheriff’s position because he felt there were some things he could do better, and some things he felt the department as a whole could do better. His overriding goal is to ensure his deputies serve the public to make a safe community; and he considers the whole county as one large community.
“It’s not me, it’s the staff that makes the office look good,” he said.
Pulkrabek realizes even if his name remains the only one on the ballot, it still requires a decision by the voters to select him. “It’s very humbling to know people go out to the polls. They don’t have to check that box (next to his name). But, it’s humbling if they do, that they’ve chosen me to serve.”