‘WE’RE IN A BAD PLACE’
By ANDREW MCGINN
In the aftermath of the Aug. 10 derecho that lashed the area with hurricane-force winds, an older Jefferson woman still without power after several days was alone and afraid when she sought reassurance from police by requesting an extra patrol of her neighborhood.
In speaking with her, Capt. Heath Enns didn’t have the heart to tell her the truth — that the Jefferson Police Department didn’t have anyone to patrol the community at all that night.
For Enns, who worked his last shift as the department’s second-in-command on Aug. 21 and his first shift as a Greene County sheriff’s deputy on Wednesday, the truth was becoming harder and harder to stomach.
There were days, Enns explained, when he would get so queasy at work that he would throw up.
The 31-year-old finally made the hard decision to walk away from a dream of one day succeeding Mark Clouse as police chief in order to free himself from a “destructive relationship” between the dwindling department and a City Hall that he suspects has intentionally allowed the police force to struggle beyond the point of no return.
“I don’t know if the police department can be saved,” Enns said.
Staffing issues — spurred by a national shortage of police recruits in the wake of widespread civil unrest, but compounded by a city that refuses to bring salaries in line with outside agencies — have gotten so dire that the Greene County board of supervisors Monday discussed the possibility that the county seat town with a casino will require help with emergency law enforcement coverage.
Greene County Sheriff Jack Williams didn’t mince words: He doesn’t have the manpower to provide Jefferson with coverage, he told supervisors, and adding deputies would likely just exacerbate the Jefferson Police Department’s problems, because remaining officers would undoubtedly apply for the jobs.
“I no longer wish to be part of this environment that has been created by city administration,” Enns wrote in a six-page resignation letter dated Aug. 10, a copy of which was obtained by The Jefferson Herald.
In it, Enns excoriates Jefferson City Administrator Mike Palmer, in particular, calling him “naive” and charging that he “lacks the ability to grasp the knowledge about the change in law enforcement since 2015 due to events around the nation.”
Mayor Matt Gordon, who has advocated for raising police pay, said Enns was inspired to write such a scathing letter after finally seeing a long-rumored email written by Palmer to city council members in which Palmer blames department leadership for their own woes.
In the March 2 email — portions of which are reprinted in Enns’ resignation letter, and were authenticated by Gordon — Palmer indicated that he thought the police department’s real retention issue is “the leadership of the department.”
“The environment is ‘toxic negativity’ and no amount of money, people or equipment is going to fix that unless there is a change in attitude,” Palmer wrote to city council members.
The police department has cited 180 percent turnover in the last three years, Palmer wrote, “but yet takes no responsibility for the turnover during the four-year tenure of the current leader while other departments have no such issue.”
He added: “I find it extremely dangerous that one department is allowed to essentially lobby, campaign and shame other departments, elected officials and citizens in order to place a band-aid over the real problem.”
For Enns, Palmer’s email was a revelation, finally revealing his “actual feelings about our department” and providing Enns insight into why there seems to be a disconnect between the police force and city council.
Enns believes the city council has been fed “inaccurate information,” and that Palmer’s misrepresentation of Police Chief Mark Clouse is “extremely misleading and defamatory.”
“Not one time have I seen Chief Clouse make a decision that did not have the best interest of his employees and citizens of Jefferson in mind,” he wrote.
“The guy’s a father figure to all of us,” Enns said later, speaking with the Herald about Clouse.
For his part, Clouse told the Herald last week that he “flat out” denies Palmer’s accusation that his department is “toxic.”
“I do the best I can do with what I’m given,” Clouse said. “I know the coach is always blamed when the team isn’t performing.”
Asked Monday if he thought the police department has a “toxic” work environment, Palmer told the Herald, “I’m not down there. I don’t know.”
Palmer also downplayed the recent rate of turnover among officers — something Enns said puts the Jefferson Police Department at risk of collapse.
“I can’t really say,” Palmer said when asked if the current situation should be described as a crisis. “Policing isn’t my deal. They’ve been down (officers) before.”
“I think they’ll manage to maintain coverage,” Palmer added.
Clouse said his department, which is fully staffed at eight, currently has “four bodies” to cover the community 24/7. One officer is at the law enforcement academy, and another left recently for a job in Waukee.
More, it’s been said, are looking to jump ship. Simply by walking across the hall at the Greene County Law Enforcement Center to the sheriff’s office, Gordon said, Jefferson officers garner a $7,000 raise. By July of 2021, Gordon said, there will be a $10,000 difference in pay between officers and deputies.
Officers in Jefferson start at $42,554 annually. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual pay for police nationally in 2019 was $65,170.
Gordon and Clouse previously proposed a pay raise of $10,000 for each officer by July 1, 2021. But after that city council meeting, Gordon said he felt pressured “to be quiet” as to not upset other city departments.
Palmer on Monday said the police pay scale is “handed to us” as a result of union bargaining. The city’s police and public works departments, he said, are nearing the end of a five-year contract that expires in 2021.
If deputies do end up covering Jefferson more, Clouse said the level of service won’t be the same.
“The sheriff has made it clear,” Clouse said. “They respond to Iowa criminal code violations and emergencies. Your bats in houses, your funeral escorts, everything that makes the Jefferson Police Department the service it is, those things would go away.”
County Attorney Thomas Laehn on Monday said it’s inevitable that the police department soon won’t be able to provide 24/7 coverage of Jefferson. He told the supervisors the next step is to explore a 28E agreement between the county and city detailing what services would be provided at what cost.
The sheriff’s office, Laehn noted, was never intended to help get cats out of trees.
Palmer wasn’t in attendance Monday at the supervisors’ meeting in which emergency coverage of Jefferson by the sheriff’s office was discussed. Despite being an agenda item, Palmer said he didn’t know it was going to be a topic of discussion.
Gordon was, however, in attendance, and addressed supervisors.
“It’s all on the council,” Gordon told the board. “This has been going on for four years. This is not a new issue. Hopefully, this is going to be a tipping point.”
Afterward, he told the Herald, “We’re in a bad place. We have to do an about-face and start taking this seriously, but I can’t do it alone.”
“They’re in a very bad position,” Enns told the Herald. “I don’t know how they’re going to recover.”
Williams told the supervisors he would need six to eight additional deputies to cover Jefferson — or four new deputies to respond solely to emergency calls.
Williams said the sheriff’s office already handles 3,000 calls annually, “and they’re not dog calls.”
“It’s crime,” he said.
In an era marked by coast-to-coast calls for police reform, it would seem the Jefferson Police Department is already a model of community-first policing, with officers taking possession of stray kittens and changing batteries in smoke detectors in between making arrests. Officers have been known to eat lunch with kids at the schools.
“We’re a different creature here,” Clouse said. “I’m asking for help through these issues.”
The main issue is a dearth of applicants for job openings, pitting those agencies with more resources against those with bottom-tier pay and equipment. In Jefferson, duty officers share vehicles and even Tasers.
The stated opinion at Jefferson City Hall, according to Gordon and Enns, is that Tasers — less-lethal weapons that have begun to be carried even by historically unarmed British police — are “above and beyond” what’s needed by police.
“We used to get by with minimal equipment and minimal training,” Clouse explained, “because we had the applicant pool to tolerate it.”
Enns put it another way: “It’s embarrassing.”
Enns said the department isn’t even allowed to have a credit card, hindering efforts to advertise more widely for openings.
Clouse said a job opening used to bring 30 to 40 applications. Now it’s down to three or four.
“We’re always looking for that good fit for our community,” Clouse said. “I refuse to lower my standard. I’m not going to do that just to have a body in Jefferson. I want people here who want to be part of our community, and love it the way I do.”
That said, “It’s definitely an employee’s market right now,” he said.
Clouse said he’s retaining officers for eight to 14 months before bigger departments lure them away and buy out their contracts.
But size doesn’t always matter.
Clouse said his ability to keep pace “pales in comparison to other communities of our size and stature.”
Enns said his counterpart in Carlisle — pop. 4,294 — makes $13,000 more, plus gets overtime.
In 2018, the Jefferson city council approved an incentive package for new cops — including a hiring bonus of $2,000, and up to $9,600 in student loan reimbursement — but it’s apparently been little help.
There are always going to be young cops who prefer living in a metro area, according to Clouse, “with 800 places to eat supper and entertainment every night.”
“There are some things we can control,” he said, “and salaries is one of those.”
Gordon said a fear of other city departments is keeping the city from giving the police department’s retention issue full attention.
He’s been asked by other city departments if their hard-working guys aren’t worth a raise, too.
“Other departments do a fine job,” Gordon said. “Look at this derecho. I’m blown away by how clean our city looks. I’m not trying to take anything away from other departments.”
Alas, no one is protesting wastewater treatment plant operators nationally, and the odds of being shot in the head while mowing a park are slim to none.
Clouse said his officers are just as much at risk for an incident as officers in West Des Moines.
Gordon believes the police force is, in fact, being short-changed.
“They’re not going out there with the biggest, the baddest, the best,” Gordon explained. “They don’t have an armored tank.”
He said Clouse even refuses to give in to young officers’ frequent requests to wear military-style outer vests — one of just a few gripes Gordon has heard about the chief in interviews with past and present employees.
Enns’ departure is largely seen as a breaking point.
“I believe I have done everything I could to help educate city leaders about this ever-evolving issue and an abundant amount of solutions to fiscally work towards,” Enns wrote. “I believe, however, that I have exhausted all of my efforts to help Chief Mark Clouse in moving the Jefferson Police Department in the right direction.”
After 11 years with the Jefferson Police Department — including six as a patrol officer — Enns admittedly lost confidence and trust in city administration.
He said he leaves “hurt and upset.”
Enns was particularly good at finding alternative avenues of money to pay for equipment, according to Gordon, including life-saving defibrillators from a national sandwich shop chain. His wife and another police wife recently sold “Back the Blue” T-shirts in order to buy new handguns for the department.
Gordon said he personally has had difficulty getting hard numbers out of City Hall, until, ironically, he asked the city administrator how much it would cost to buy Clouse an early retirement; $502,703 was the answer.
Clouse isn’t sure how his departure would change anything.
“The next guy in,” he said, “is going to have the same tools that I have.”