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The Scarlet & Black

New priorities for G.P.D. include mental health support, “proactive enforcement”

By MJ Old

There weren’t any murders in Grinnell in 2019. There were, however, 43 arrests related to domestic violence, 667 traffic citations and 68 incidents of “criminal mischief.” The Grinnell Police Department has been busy. Even so, Grinnell Police Chief Dennis Reilly found time to talk about the finer points of the Grinnell Police Department’s 2019 Annual Report.

One surprising non-issue was the opioid epidemic. “We have not seen in Grinnell any overdoses related to opioid use. We’ve had it in Newton, we’ve had it in Cedar Rapids, so it’s surrounded us, but we have not really had any experience with that,” Reilly said.

Still, the police are taking preventative measures, such as maintaining a prescription drug drop-off for people to safely dispose of their opioids. In 2019, the police department collected approximately 274 pounds of prescription drugs. However, in 2020 they will need to find a new method of disposal, because the facility that previously incinerated the drugs is now charging more than the GPD can afford.

“I would be hard-pressed to believe that that drug box is going to disappear because the benefits that it serves far outweigh any financial expenditure we’d have to deal with,” Reilly said.

The Grinnell Hy-Vee also operates a prescription drug drop-off box. Fentanyl, a common synthetic opioid, is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the CDC. It is so dangerous that the GPD has stopped field-testing suspected narcotics for officer safety. Instead, unknown substances will be sent to a lab for safe analysis.

“Grinnell was one of the first in the state to institute that, and the reason was we had law enforcement all over the country who were doing search warrants and those substances become airborne, or the officer has contact through the skin, and the next thing you know they’re having a medical emergency.”

According to Reilly, airborne fentanyl has also caused respiratory problems for police dogs. The 2019 report also mentions “proactive enforcement” and police efforts to “deal with the smaller problems before they become bigger ones.”

Is this broken-windows policing? Not necessarily, says Reilly. “When we stop a car at 2 a.m. for a faulty taillight or a faulty headlight or no license plate light,” he said, “we find revoked drivers. We find suspended drivers. We find barred drivers. We find drivers with no liability insurance. We find drivers operating while under the influence. We find drivers who are wanted. We find drivers who have drugs. And so, the traffic stop for that minor violation leads to other things.” He also pointed out that unless you get pulled over for it, it’s unlikely drivers will realize they have a broken taillight at all.

Proactive policing also involves building relationships with the community. “As the weather gets warmer, you’ll see me sitting on a park bench, drinking a hot chocolate from Saint’s Rest, just looking to engage people and have conversations,” Reilly said. “It’s important for people to know who we are. It’s important for people to feel comfortable in asking us questions during the course of those conversations.”

Being a police officer in Grinnell isn’t all drinking hot chocolate and making conversation. “We had an officer a couple years ago, brand new, and within his first six months of being on his own he was the first on scene to a multiple fatality car accident, had a couple of suicides,” Reilly said. “You never lose those visions.”

Another important part of the 2019 report dealt with providing psychological support to officers. A few officers have been trained in peer support, and a psychologist specializing in public safety spoke to officers and their spouses and significant others about handling stress at a recent staff meeting.

In 2020, the GPD has instituted a chaplain program, with three chaplains already involved. “We’ve created multiple layers for our officers to reach out to someone when or if they’re feeling there’s an issue going on that they need to talk to somebody about, and I think it’s great.”

However, providing psychological support is an ongoing effort. “We’re sending another officer to peer support training this spring, so there’s certainly more to do, but it’s a good start for us,” Reilly said.

According to Reilly, the mental health of officers is a first step to help them interact calmly and professionally with the people they encounter. “Our job is not to be an occupying force within Grinnell,” Reilly said. “Our job is to protect the citizens of Grinnell, protect the people that live here, protect the people that visit here.”

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