IOWA CITY — Speeding in the parking lot outside the Iowa City Veterans Affairs hospital is a federal violation. So is parking illegally on the government property.
Veterans Affairs police officers assigned to patrol the Iowa City hospital and its grounds have issued 1,847 violation notices on the property since 2008, including 1,648 parking tickets.
Minor offenses make up most of the citations issued by the Iowa City VA police force, according to department statistics, although officers keep busy confiscating contraband, responding to reports of disorderly conduct and intervening in the occasional assault.
“Anything that happens on the property is a federal citation,” said Valerie Buckingham, spokeswoman for the Iowa City VA Health Care System.
After spending the last few seasons short-staffed, the local VA police force — which has been patrolling the Iowa City campus for years — is expanding in size and scope.
It recently entered into a training partnership with the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office and was added to the Johnson County Joint Emergency Communications Center dispatch network, making coordination with neighboring agencies easier.
Officers also expect to have more property to patrol as the local VA continues to upgrade and improve its facilities, including constructing a new parking ramp.
“We’re growing, which is nice,” said VA police Chief Christopher Duncan.
There currently are 14 Iowa City VA police officers, still one short of being at full staff but up from six months ago when the force was down five officers.
The number of reports officers filed in the most recent budget year that ended in June was up over the last budget year. Officers took 1,142 reports in fiscal 2012, compared with 917 in fiscal 2011.
Duncan said he hopes those numbers continue to climb as the Iowa City VA strives to maintain a full police force.
“I’ve had such high turnover these last few years,” he said.
Even with the recent bump in the statistics, the number of reports taken and violation notices issued is still way down from 2009, when a full staff of Iowa City VA officers filed 2,276 reports and issued 634 violation notices.
“Our staffing has been so short-handed,” Duncan said. “It’s just getting people out in the parking lots.”
Of the 634 tickets issued in 2009, 610 were for parking violations. Duncan said he’s required to keep two people on patrol in the hospital at all times, pushing parking enforcement down the priority list.
“If I have a third officer available, they can look into parking,” Duncan said.
Before 2002, the Iowa City VA officers were similar to baton-carrying security guards, except they held authority to issue citations and make arrests. After December 2002, the officers became armed, which Duncan said was partly in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“We’re a federal entity, and sometimes the U.S. government is going to be a target,” he said.
Iowa City’s VA officers have yet to fire their weapons in response to an emergency. Since 2008, in fact, officers have only used force in the form of pepper spray three times, Duncan said.
Still, he said, simply having armed officers on site with authority to arrest and issue tickets has helped curb criminal behavior.
“Visibility is key,” Duncan said. “It’s having officers out there and visible … when they’re not, people take advantage.”
Before VA officers began carrying guns, seven were killed in the line of duty nationwide — none at the Iowa City VA. Since arming the VA police, no officers have been killed on duty, and Duncan said he’d like to see officers stationed at the VA’s outpatient clinics as well as its main hospital campuses.
“Uniformed officers in general create an environment where patients feel safe,” Duncan said.
The Iowa City VA network has nine outpatient clinics and two homeless outreach centers.
“But we can’t staff those budget-wise,” Duncan said.
Most of the VA police officers are veterans themselves, which helps them connect with the people they’re keeping safe and confronting on a daily basis.
But recruiting officers can be difficult, in part because it’s not widely known that VA campuses have police forces. Duncan himself said he didn’t know there was a VA police force during his service with the Army. But, after returning from active duty, Duncan was asked if he needed a job, and he did.
He went through law enforcement training and now is doing his part to recruit and retain high-quality officers to patrol the Iowa City VA’s grounds. That includes increasing salaries for some positions and providing promotional incentives for others.
“We hope that helps with the issues that were popping up,” he said.
Iowa City VA deputy chief Roger Fontinel found his way to the hospital campus following his active service with the Navy and stints with the Tama County Sheriff’s Office and the University of Iowa Police Department.
Fontinel said he’s honored to be a part of a growing VA police force that is forging new partnerships and planning first-of-their-kind active drills.
The agency next month is planning to run an active threat drill in the hospital that will, for the first time, include patients, staff and officers.