BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Bringing in two K-9 officers and equipping officers and patrol cars with the latest video technology would be enough for most sheriff’s departments to call it good for the year.
But with Stacy Weber just wrapping up his first year as Lee County Sheriff, he says the county is just now getting an initial look at what’s in store for the department.
“It’s been a long year,” Weber said at the start of interview Thursday.
Indeed. On Weber’s first day, two fisherman went missing on the shore in Montrose. Both fisherman were eventually found drowned as a result of the accident.
Four weeks later, a body was found in Indian Path park on the west side of Skunk River just inside the county border. The state Department of Criminal Investigation took over the lead in that case, but the suspect is now in custody in Lee County Jail facing 1st degree murder charges.
Weber had, and still has, aspirations to take the sheriff’s department in a different direction. Despite the tragedies that have a marked impression on the 44-year-old husband and father of two from Donnellson, Weber points to the direction of the department and only looks back on the lives lost and how the department can work toward keeping those numbers minimal. And the direction he points is right at his staff.
“I know I get a lot of credit for what goes on here, but honestly it’s Chief Deputy (Will) Conlee, Deputy (Craig) Burch, Jail Administrator John Canida, the detectives, the deputies, my staff, and the jail staff.” he said. “These people don’t need to be told what to do, they have a job to do and when they come back in, day in and day out, it’s done.”
Conlee said morale is high in the department and the numbers bear that out. He said one of the things the department tracks is contacts under, what he calls, grant periods.
Grant periods are the periods of time of traffic enforcement that are paid for with money the department receives from the Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau.
“In the six month grant period in 2016 we had 240 contacts,” Conlee said. “In the same time in 2017 we had 1,400 contacts. Those are traffic stops where we make contact with a motorist just on traffic enforcement. That doesn’t include any other data.”
Weber said GTSB officials came down to Lee County after the 2016 election and said, ‘You’ve had 13 fatalities this year. What are you going to do, and what can we do to help you.’
“They can only give you so much money, but that’s what I told them we needed and that’s what they did,” Weber said. “This year so far we’ve had three. And that’s three too many. So we increased our presence on the street and when you do that, eventually you end up with a higher inmate population.”
He said those contacts result in suspended drivers, warrants, and other violations that result in jail time. Weber said he prefers to be on the street than at his desk and when he’s on the street he’s always monitoring motorists.
“I always run radar,” he said. “And so does Chief Deputy Conlee. So if I got ya speeding, you’re gonna have a conversation with the sheriff about your driving. And if I think your windows are tinted too dark, I’m gonna pull you over and we’re gonna have a chat.”
The increased traffic stops have pushed the inmate populations at Lee County Jail from approximately 73 inmates per day before he took office, to about 90 per day, with many days over 100.
Due to that increase, Weber went to the board and asked for additional help, spurred by an incident in the fall where a combative inmate wouldn’t cooperate with instructions of the correctional officer on duty and a fight ensued. The officer got control of the situation, but no help was available during the incident. Lee County supervisors approved hiring two additional staff and are looking at allowing two more in the upcoming budget session.
While campaigning for the position, Weber said the people of the county told him they wanted a K-9 presence on the department, so Weber made that a campaign promise to bring a K-9 officer onto the staff.
A committee was formed by volunteer citizens including animal advocates, former law enforcement officers, liaisons with the Iowa State Penitentiary K-9 team, and county residents. In a matter of just a few months, enough money had been raised privately to purchase, train and equip a K-9 officer. In fact, the county residents were so supportive that enough funds were raised to bring in two officers and in less than 11 months, the department now has two functioning K-9 officers on staff. Deputies Uriah Wheatley and Dakota Foley are the animal handlers.
“What tickled me was how fast the community got behind us. In just several weeks we exceeded our goal and not just for the dogs, but the equipment,” Weber said. “The community just came out and backed us 100%. And the deputies who stepped up to be K-9 officers – the public needs to realize that this just isn’t an 8-4 gig. These animals live with the deputies and the things they’re tasked with just don’t end at the end of a shift.”
Training has also been ramped up in 2017. Weber said he asked a deputy to write down some thoughts on the year and where the department was headed.
“I’ve never seen so many guys gone for training like this before,” Weber read from the letter. “There’s been a change in morale for the department as a whole and people are now wanting to leave where they are and come work here.”
Another accomplishment for the department for this year is creating a rapid response team. Conlee said the program is still in the beginning stages, but about six deputies have gone through initial training for the program. Weber said Fort Madison and Keokuk police departments have tactical response teams but only a couple deputies have been involved in that, so the department decided to build one internally.
Weber said the R.R.T. will develop further in 2018, a year he says will be time to build on the programs already created.
Conlee said it’s been a whirlwind of a year.
“It’s flown by, that’s for sure. When the Sheriff asked me to be the Chief Deputy, I started thinking about the things I wanted to see changed from the patrol side and that was first and foremost the outdated equipment we had in our vehicles,” Conlee said. “I knew we were going to increase proactive patrols, but in order to do that, they had to do it safely and that’s why we went to new cameras and car video systems.”
Twelve new body cameras and six new video systems have also been purchased and put in place to supplement what was already in place. Weber said the devices aren’t for “Big Brother”.
“The camera system wasn’t for Big Brother, but so those guys knew that we cared about them enough to go get the best equipment there is, because that may be the only witness to their murder,” he said.
Weber said he hopes to build on the programs that have already started and doesn’t see adding much more new to the department in 2018.
“We’ve got a lot going on right now and next year I really just want to see what these programs do. A work in progress comes to mind on the things that have taken place,” he said.
“We also want to be even more visible, even though I think we’ve taken huge strides this year in being seen more.”