Where are the troopers?



In his legislative letter printed in The Storm Lake Times Wednesday, State Rep. Gary Worthan (R-Storm Lake), who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees appropriations for the Iowa State Patrol, noted the shortage of state troopers in Iowa in recent years. While the Iowa State Patrol's authorized strength is about 450 troopers, a number that it reached in the early 1970s, only 259 actually patrol the roads today, so response time to emergencies can be long. One trooper recently had to drive 115 miles to reach a traffic accident on I-80. The patrol is another victim of budget-cutting and it doesn’t look to improve any time soon — the state is facing a $100 million revenue shortfall for 2017.

We have noticed the lack of troopers on Iowa roads, not only two lanes but also interstates. We have made dozens of trips to Illinois and Indiana over the past 10 years to visit our kids there, and we rarely see troopers in Iowa, while they are apparent in other states.

Maybe troopers aren't needed as much since county sheriffs and city police have beefed up their departments. In the 1970s there were only three deputies (including my friend Pauline Sorenson, who died last week at age 102) serving Buena Vista County. Now there are more than a dozen deputies who patrol the county and are able to reach emergency scenes quickly. In the 70s there were half a dozen troopers who lived in Storm Lake. I don't know any troopers who live here now, although there is one each in Albert City and Alta.

This de-emphasis of the state patrol in Iowa can also be seen in the operation of the state police radio station at the corner of Lakeshore and Flindt Drive in Storm Lake. As we noted in The Times a couple of years ago, this station, which operated 24/7 for decades relaying radio traffic among state troopers throughout northwest Iowa, is now often closed on nights and weekends when communications are handled out of Des Moines or some other faraway location.

Captain Floyd Carver, who lived in Storm Lake in the 1970s and oversaw western Iowa, was a candidate for chief of the patrol at that time. Another Storm Laker, Colonel Pat Hoye, commanded the patrol beginning in 2007; he is now chief of the Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau. His late brother Joe was a captain with Storm Lake Police. Great guys.

I enjoyed many great relationships with law enforcement when I was a young reporter, and counted many cops and troopers among my friends. I used to play cards with them. Ray Kurtz, who lived for years a block from me on Ontario Street and had a handshake like a vise-grip, was a good friend. So was Jerry Henderson, a pilot when the Patrol had a plane stationed at the Storm Lake Airport. He'd take me flying so I could do stories about the Patrol.

When I worked at the Algona newspapers I developed friendships with troopers there as well. One of them often had the communications center phone me at home when he was called out. I’d wait with my camera in the front yard of my house, near the highway going out of town. In a few minutes the trooper would roll up, red lights flashing, and off we'd go to a tornado near Fenton or an accident in West Bend. Of course, I'd photograph him valiantly at the scene, large and in charge. The only requirement was that I always photograph him with his hat on. A trooper who is seen out of his car without his hat gets reprimanded by the brass.

This positive publicity made state troopers revered in Iowa. An Iowa Poll published by The Des Moines Register in 1978 found that only God was held in higher esteem than state troopers in Iowa. As a result, city police and sheriff's deputies were jealous of troopers and thought them to be dandies. Cops enjoyed calling troopers "brown shirts," believing "blue shirts" did the real police work.

The patrol also took a hit to its reputation in recent years with its drug interdiction squads that roamed western Iowa on Interstate 80. They’d stop out-of-state cars merely on a hunch and confiscate the drivers’ money even if they found no drugs and didn’t charge the drivers with a crime. After innocent people sued, the state was forced last year to pay settlements and discontinued the squads after the U.S. Justice Department questioned the practice nationwide.

Reporters used to easily get accident reports by calling troopers directly who covered the event. This worked well and allowed reporters and troopers to develop rapport. Over time the brass decided that only public relations people could talk to reporters and these personal relationships unraveled and the great PR disappeared with it.

Iowa’s neglect for the patrol is reinforced by a visit to the patrol’s website. Much of it apparently hasn't been updated in years and it doesn’t even mention who the current chief is. It still lists Pat Hoye as chief, a position he hasn’t held for several years. And a map of statewide patrol districts still lists Buena Vista County as part of District 5 Headquarters in Cherokee, which was closed in 2010. BV has been part of District 6 in Spencer since then.