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There has been a good deal of news coverage recently regarding language in the 2021 Back the Blue Bill that resulted in some counties having to approve a hefty salary increase for their Sheriffs. In this edition of Freedom Watch, I will explain why this requirement was necessary.

The 2021 Back the Blue bill (SF342) was intended to address a number of issues, including the need to create code in response to some of the actions of rioters in Iowa the year before. During the unrest that swept the nation, rioters in Iowa assaulted police officers, destroyed public property, blocked roadways and in general created as much chaos as possible. While these events were far less severe than in other states, these issues needed to be addressed. The Legislature created penalties for blocking roadways and shining lasers in officer’s eyes with intent to do harm. We also enhanced penalties for assaulting our brave men and women in law enforcement, amongst other initiatives. During the process of creating this extensive bill in support of law enforcement, the Iowa State Sheriffs’ and Deputies’ Association brought to our attention a significant issue with Sheriff salaries that needed to be addressed.

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The salary setting process for Sheriffs was not working well in our state. Iowa code has long required that the salaries of their peers in law enforcement be considered in the setting of Sheriffs’ salaries, but that simply was not happening in some counties. Iowa code asked our Compensation Boards to consider comparable salaries but fell short of requiring them to use that data.

The result of this process was that in some counties the salaries for Sheriffs and their deputies did not keep up with their peers in the State Patrol, the Department of Public Safety, or city police departments. This resulted in some Sheriffs being unable to attract and retain staff.

With the passage of the Back the Blue Bill (SF 342), the Legislature took two important steps to address the salary problems for County Sheriffs. First, it clarified that a Sheriff’s salary is to be compared to that of their peers by specifying that the Compensation Boards were required to reference the salaries of city police chiefs, and that they should be from a city with a similar population to the county that the Sheriff represents. Second, the legislation made sure that the Compensation Boards followed the intent of the law by requiring them to set the salary recommendation based on comparable salaries rather than just considering them.

With the changes from SF342 in effect and the budgeting process in full swing for counties, we have learned that the Sheriffs’ concerns were valid and more significant than anyone had anticipated. A review of comparable salaries is showing that many Sheriffs are being paid considerably less than their peers. This impacts not only the Sheriff, but also everyone else in their office whose salaries are calculated based on the Sheriff’s salary.

It is understandable that people are surprised by some of the large increases being recommended by County Compensation Boards, but it must be understood that waiting to correct the problem will only further exacerbate it.

The duties and expectations placed upon our Sheriffs and their deputies are unique, critical to the safety of our communities, and particularly challenging in the era in which we live. A Sheriff is elected and accountable to the people they represent. Unlike others in law enforcement, Sheriffs are tasked with running our county jails, and ever-growing state and federal regulations makes this harder every day. They have the responsibility of providing 24/7 public safety for their entire county. While other department’s shifts might be up, a Sheriff’s office is always on duty.

Our Sheriff’s offices are tasked with leading criminal investigations, maintaining the Sex Offender registry, issuing weapons permits, providing courthouse security, issuing civil notices, handling evictions, and increasingly they are tasked with trying to resolve complex mental health emergencies. In addition to the myriad of other duties that are not listed here, it should be noted that many of the smaller communities in our state contract with their Sheriff’s Department to provide law enforcement services.

Sheriffs are being encouraged to work together with their Compensation Boards and their County Supervisors to address the shortfall in many of their salaries. Some of the gaps are large and it may be appropriate to spread the increases over more than one year. With that said, budgeting comes down to priorities, and Iowans have shown they value the rule of law. With law and order as a top priority for our constituents, we should support fair and comparable salaries for the Sheriffs who work tirelessly to provide it.

I recently met with representatives of the Iowa State Association of Counties to hear their concerns. They informed me that while there was some initial confusion and concern, they now believe that counties understand they have some latitude in determining comparable salaries, and that the corrections to salaries do not have to be made in one year. To that end, they informed me that they see no need at this time for clarification or changes to the law.

I believe that there has never been a more challenging time in our nation’s history to be a law enforcement officer. As long as Republicans are in charge in Des Moines, we will take whatever action is necessary to support those brave men and women of law enforcement that ensure the rule of law is maintained in our communities. John Locke reminded us that “wherever law ends, tyranny begins.” It is essential that we have a competent force of peace officers to ensure that in Iowa, tyranny will never begin. Requiring that our Sheriffs be paid properly is an important step in that process.

Author: Steven Holt

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