Fewer than half of the vehicles from the Iowa Department of Public Safety’s two largest law enforcement divisions were equipped to give officers the option of locking up weapons in those vehicles with designated equipment such as locking rifle racks or handgun vaults as recently as May 2019, an IowaWatch investigation revealed.
Vehicles purchased since 2017 have locking devices to secure firearms beyond locking a vehicle’s door or trunk. The Department of Public Safety declined for safety reasons to provide updated numbers of vehicles with the capability.
“Information regarding security and storage of weapons is a significant officer safety concern,” Catherine Lucas, general counsel of the Iowa Department of Public Safety wrote to IowaWatch in a response to a public records request in late September.
Adam DeCamp, Division of Criminal Investigation special agent in charge, said a vehicle is secure when its doors are locked.
Internal firearm policy directives for the Department of Public Safety obtained by IowaWatch did not show any policy for the safe storage of handguns in an unattended vehicle. DeCamp said the Division of Criminal Investigation does not have a policy prohibiting leaving weapons unattended in a vehicle when they are not in a vault or locking rifle rack.
Lt. Rick Pierce, Iowa State Patrol fleet and supply commander, said in May the entire fleet was projected to have the locking rifle racks within the next one to one-and-a-half years. The Department of Public Safety has declined to say if the timeline has changed.
A handgun was stolen from a Division of Criminal Investigation vehicle in 2018, the IowaWatch investigation revealed.
A 2017 study conducted by public health experts from Harvard and Northeastern University found gun owners who stored guns in their cars were more than twice as likely to experience theft than gun owners who did not.
A law was passed in California in 2016 requiring a firearm left in any vehicle, including those owned by civilians, to be secured in a locked container and out of plain view, or in the trunk. The law was a response to gun thefts from police vehicles where the weapons were eventually used in crimes. A similar law does not exist in Iowa for law enforcement officers.
Pierce said approximately 150 Iowa State Patrol vehicles had locking rifle racks in May 2019.
The Patrol began installing locking rifle racks in its vehicles in 2017, Pierce said.
DeCamp said 12 of the 142 Division of Criminal Investigation vehicles were outfitted with handgun vaults for gun storage in vehicles for people in the agency as of May 2019. Installation of the vaults began in newly purchased vehicles in 2017.
However, equipment updates are not made retroactively.
“We institute something new in the field like, say, the rifle racks that we’re putting in our cars, we don’t go back and retrofit all the other cars,” Pierce said. “We usually run about a three-and-a-half year cycle on rotation.”
Gun stolen from DCI car
Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation Special Agent Laura Meyers’ vehicle was broken into in St. Louis on March 25, 2018. Her loaded, agency-issued Glock 23 semi-automatic pistol was stolen from her vehicle, along with a polygraph machine and personal items, after the window was broken, DeCamp said. Records he gave IowaWatch confirm this information.
“Her weapon was in a secured vehicle, it was not laying out in plain sight,” DeCamp said. “The vehicle was burglarized and it was taken.”
DeCamp said the gun was not secured in a vault or other form of locking mechanism inside the locked vehicle.
Meyers stopped in St. Louis on her way back from a 20-week polygraph training session in Florida. DeCamp said the weapon stolen from Meyer’s vehicle has since been recovered, although department officials declined to confirm that in follow-up correspondence with IowaWatch. DeCamp said he could not comment on where the weapon was recovered or if it had been used in any crimes, as it is part of an ongoing federal investigation of a burglary ring.
Meyers is still a special agent with the Division of Criminal Investigation, Lucas confirmed in late September. Meyers did not violate department policies, DeCamp said.
The vehicle in the incident was a model year 2014 and had not been outfitted with a vault.
Jim Wittenwyler, director of the administrative services division of the Iowa Department of Public Safety, requested on June 25, 2018, that the Executive Council of Iowa approve spending $5,310.94 to repair a window and replace the stolen polygraph machine.
According to the minutes of the Executive Council meeting, the request was to “cover repair costs.” Pierce confirmed that it was for the stolen polygraph machine, which has never been recovered, and the broken window. DeCamp said funds to replace the gun were not sought because the department had replacements.
The request was reviewed and recommended for approval by the state auditor’s office, then approved by the council.
The incident was not disclosed to the public at the time but was reported to St. Louis Metropolitan Police. St. Louis Metropolitan Police told IowaWatch a record of the incident did not exist, but DeCamp later gave IowaWatch an incident report.
The Department of Public Safety does not have a system or policy for reporting to the public when weapons thefts take place, department Lt. Nathan Ludwig said. “I don’t know if we actually put it out there,” Ludwig said. “We just treat everything as a public record or a FOIA (freedom of information act) if people were to inquire about it.”
Ludwig was a sergeant and the public information officer for the Department of Public Safety at the time of an early interview for this story in April.