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Kunkel ready for sheriffs role

Priority on domestic violence, technology investigation

SOLON You dont get to say it very often in Johnson County.
Theres a new sheriff in town.
Brad Kunkel will take the reins from retiring Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek with the end of the calendar year.
The rural Solon resident and former city council member soundly defeated Al Fear in the June primary and was unopposed in the Nov. 3 general election.
Now hes prepared to make good on his campaign pledges and is working with Pulkrabek on a smooth transition.
Kunkel, 41, has spent two decades with the sheriffs office, rising to the rank of detective sergeant and public information officer. He began as a reserve before joining full time in 2001.
A native of West Branch, he held a high school job where a lot of local law enforcement officers gathered.
It was just a time in my life when good role models intersected with me at the right time, he explained. It opened up my eyes to this as a career path.
After graduating from West Branch High School in 1997, Kunkel attended Kirkwood Community College and obtained his associates degree in criminal justice and law enforcement.
His first five years were spent working at the jail, then another couple years on late night patrols. He eventually moved to an evening shift to accommodate his desire to return to school and went on to earn a bachelors degree in political science and a minor in religious studies at the University of Iowa.
It was a really busy time for he and his wife Julie.
The couple, married in 2002, added a third son and Brad was elected to his first term as a member of the Solon City Council during the same two-year span he returned to school.
Although it wasnt always a goal to become sheriff, part of the reason he sought to better his education was to further his career and there was a point where he realized it was achievable.
In the June primary, Kunkel defeated Fear with 87 percent of the vote. He went on to receive 98 percent of the ballots cast in the general election.
He expects to take his oath of office Dec. 31 and assume his duties Jan. 2.
Although Kunkel was the presumptive sheriff-elect after the primary, he had to wait for November for the voters official stamp of approval.
Its made for an interesting year, he said, and a challenging one for a candidate seeking office during a global pandemic and a summer of racial unrest.
Kunkel tried to find a balance between his daily job with the department and his preparation for higher office.
And while it wouldnt have been appropriate to do much before the general election, he observed, once the primary was over, he sought to learn as much from the outgoing administration as possible.
I take those opportunities as they come up to get that guidance and tap into that resource, he noted.
Having Pulkrabeks support during the campaign was important, he said, but after the election even more so.
The ability to have a good working relationship with the outgoing administration and not only their full support but just their guidance and the access to their knowledge is so beneficial not only to the entire office, but the voters and the entire county, he said. Its going to be invaluable for my administration going forward, and it pays dividends to the rest of the office and the public.
It also provides Kunkel a chance to become involved with everything from the hiring process and budgeting to day-to-day management experiences.
Thats important because by law the sheriff appoints a chief deputy and second deputy, he added, and time is needed for the new administration to learn the ropes.
County departments are currently working on the budget for the next fiscal year, and Kunkel made the presentation to the board of supervisors even though he hasnt officially taken office.
His campaign goals are included.
Kunkel believes its important to step up the departments efforts in investigations involving technology or a technological component with the addition of a dedicated officer.
Almost more often than not, theres at least a cell phone involved in cases across the board from human trafficking to harassment to domestic violence and everything in between, he explained.
The new position, requested in the proposed budget, would work as part of a local task force focusing on technology-related crime.
Hes also seeking some additional training and the remodeling of some office space.
But Kunkels other top goal a comprehensive domestic violence response protocol can be achieved without a significant budget impact.
To move forward with that, we dont need to have a large monetary investment, he said. Its just were going to make it a priority in how we follow up and how we better serve survivors of domestic violence.
Over his last several years as a detective, Kunkel has seen how important it is to maintain contact with victims of domestic violence and make sure they are connected with advocates and services.
His administration will discuss how to review domestic violence cases and related crimes like harassment and no-contact order violations to make sure the sheriffs office is serving as a resource for the victim.
We can and we need to do more to serve victims of domestic violence and intimate partner violence, he said. We can do a lot just by making it a priority.
While he feels his campaign messages resonated with voters, he also realizes the COVID-19 pandemic is a main focus for his department.
Our priority became keeping our staff healthy and safe, he stated.
When possible, routine calls for service were addressed by phone call instead of in-person and traffic stops were reduced to decrease the number of exposures for staff, Kunkel said.
The office stocked up on facemasks, face shields, gloves and hand sanitizer, he added.
The department also has the responsibility to keep inmates of the jail safe, a challenge given the difficulty of social distancing in the 40-year-old facility.
In a collaborative effort between jail staff, the county attorneys office, the courts and the Iowa Department of Corrections the jail population was reduced.
Pre-COVID, the number of inmates was in the mid-to-low 60s. That number has been cut in half during the pandemic.
It will be a long time before the impact for defendants and victims is known, Kunkel noted. Judges are holding fewer people on bond, releasing them instead on their own recognizance. There will be a ripple effect from those pre-trial release decisions, he added.
Right now, its working for the jail because to date weve had zero COVID positives within the inmates, he said.
The need for a new, safe and efficient facility hasnt gone away, even with the reduced population, he said. The Johnson County Jail is the second floor of a 40-year-old building that continually requires investment, and the sheriffs office will continue to patch and repair issues as they come up.
As Johnson County grows, the department, currently at about 100 full time employees, will as well, Kunkel said.
We really cant expand any staff initiatives or provide any sort of programming or services to the jail inmates because we dont have the space to put anybody, he commented.
Until county residents are ready and willing to move forward on a new structure, he said, the department will have to work with the restrictions of the building.
Making sure the employees of the sheriffs office have a safe, healthy working environment is part of his job, Kunkel noted.
Im responsible to make sure they have the tools and that the workplace culture is where they feel they can do their best, he explained. And I have to make sure Im investing in them and in that space.
Pulkrabek brought the office forward over the last 16 years, he said, and has set a high bar.
One challenge I have ahead of me is not only keeping up with the expectation and the level he set, but how do I improve on it?