Chase Cox

Sutherland City Council member Chase Cox listens during the monthly meeting held July 6. The council talked about strategies for recruiting a police officer to fill the vacancy it has had in the community since February.

SUTHERLAND—Frustration and desperation are mounting in Sutherland and city leaders say they feel abandoned by the O’Brien County Sheriff’s Office while the town’s police vacancy drags on.

Mayor Kay Gifford led the city council discussion during its July 6 meeting.

“I’ve got an issue with the sheriff department,” the mayor said. “I have a problem that we’re not considered part of their service area.”

The city of 600 has been without a police officer since February when Jami Webster, the former full-time officer, took another law enforcement post in Cherokee.

O’Brien County has been helping Sutherland until its position is filled — a job search that has proved challenging over the past five months — but coverage from the sheriff’s team has been lacking, according to Gifford.

“I called them this weekend and the rebuke was — I’m done with them,” Gifford said.

After the meeting, Gifford declined to answer questions from The South O’Brien Sun about the sheriff’s office “at this time.”

O’Brien County sheriff Bruce Devereaux said that it is not his department’s responsibility to maintain law and order within city limits, nor does he have the manpower to do so. He invoked Iowa v. Allen, a 1997 Iowa Supreme Court decision, which said it is “illogical and impractical” for cities to rely on higher levels of government for police.

The sheriff said on-duty deputies will respond to 911 calls if not already occupied.

“The sheriff’s office has been covering numerous calls at no cost to the city of Sutherland,” Devereaux said in an e-mail to The South O’Brien Sun. “In the near future, I will be sending invoices to the city of Sutherland for calls that the sheriff’s deputies cover within the city limits of Sutherland.”

This is not the first time there has been tension between the city and county over the police vacancy.

Gifford said the sheriff’s office did not send a deputy to investigate or take a statement following a residential break-in in March. She said at the time she was confused and frustrated, but said she felt significantly better after a conversation with Devereaux.

Besides the coverage issue, the council discussed strategies to attract applicants.

Gifford floated the idea of accepting a part-timer to fill the vacancy. She said something would be better than nothing and the arrangement might be appealing to someone moving to town.

Council members Patrick Nelson and Jack Wallinga were not sure about the proposal.

“Everything is up to negotiation, I’m just wondering what a part-time cop looks like,” Nelson said.

A 32-hour-per-week officer could provide the basic coverage Sutherland lacks, Gifford said. The council reached consensus to accept applicants, full-time or part-time, as the top priority is receiving applicants in the first place.

The council also finalized another job-search strategy discussed at previous meetings: a signing bonus worth $2,500.

Without an officer, law enforcement responsibilities fall to Gifford, who often is preoccupied with her other mayoral responsibilities and her day job at Main Market and cannot effectively provide law enforcement services in the city. She also has said she is not qualified to be a stand-in officer.

“I can’t go to people’s houses anymore. I’m not armed. I don’t have a badge,” Gifford said at the June 7 council meeting.

As state and national coronavirus income programs end and with the hiring bonus instated, council member Chase Cox said he thinks the city will receive more applications.

Since the job opened in February, the city office has heard from several interested people. However, Gifford said none of them met the position’s requirements. In one instance, she said Devereaux advised her against an applicant.

The city has not “turned down bad candidates,” Gifford told The South O’Brien Sun on July 14.

“Applications received were not always able to meet requirements that is set by Iowa Code,” she said. “We currently are receiving more qualified applications and will proceed with interviews.”

This article first appeared in the July 17, 2021, edition of The South O'Brien Sun.