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Idaho Falls Police Department seeks a home to meet its changing needs

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Missing ceiling tiles are a common sight inside the Bonneville County Courthouse. During the fall, buckets were placed in the hallway to catch water leaking from the ceiling.

The courthouse and the attached law enforcement building have shown their age in recent years. Leaks are a regular problem and offices are becoming increasingly cramped. The building is home to several offices, including the Idaho Falls Police Department, the Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office and the county court system. The city and county have responded by expanding outward into nearby buildings.

Anyone visiting 605 N. Capital Ave., must go through a security check, emptying their pockets and removing metal objects. It’s a security measure common for courthouses, where emotions can run high during criminal and civil proceedings.

It is not, however, the norm for anyone visiting a police department, a sheriff’s office, a prosecutor or various other offices that are or have been housed in the courthouse.

Idaho Falls Police Chief Bryce Johnson pointed out a security check isn’t the best way to comfort someone coming to report a crime.

Idaho Falls Police Department tour

Chief Bryce Johnson points out lights that have been removed so records employees' eyes can be more comfortable during a tour of the Idaho Falls Police Department's offices in the courthouse building on Jan. 31.

The police department has two rooms used for interviewing suspects. They’re side-by-side, but there’s no fancy two-way mirror like in the movies. A person speaking in one room can be heard next door, a serious problem for cases that have more than one suspect arrested at the same time.

Victims are often taken to the conference room, where meetings and interviews are conducted. Johnson admits that more than once he’s walked in on an officer conducting an interview with a victim. It’s particularly awkward when the victim is reporting something deeply personal, such as sexual abuse.

“It’s not ideal, especially if it’s an emotional interview,” Johnson said.

Outdated, outgrown

The police department rents space from the county, often sharing facilities with the Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office. The city has been looking to move the police department out of the building since 2004.

Telltale water-stain rings indicating past leaks are a common sight in the department. Even Johnson’s office has them. For officers and staff working on the main floor, the culprit is usually condensation from the pipes. A few months ago the leaks often came from rainwater or snowmelt, seeping in through damage on the roof caused by last year’s hail storm. On a bad day a sewage line will leak, requiring repairs.

Staff who have offices attach boxes over the vents so that the air spreads out, rather than just flowing straight down.

By far the most common complaint among officers working in the basement is the lack of ventilation there. There’s a small lab in the basement that’s used to analyze and test evidence. There’s no eye-wash station in case an employee has an accident, and without ventilation, they’re exposed to the fumes. If the department were building a new lab, it would be legally required to have both.

The smell of marijuana is present to anyone walking by the evidence room. Employees who handle that evidence are limited in how long they can work in the room.

Idaho Falls Police Department tour

Chayanne Smith shows off the one freezer that her office has to store evidence during a tour of the Idaho Falls Police Department's offices in the courthouse building on Jan. 31.

There’s also not enough space for all the evidence. Shelves are packed with boxes and manila folders containing drugs, weapons, rape kits and other samples taken from crimes.

With hundreds of new cases being filed every month, the department has to dispose of as much evidence as it brings in, with the hope that no one will have a need to reexamine the evidence later.

“I’d be lying if I said that never happened,” Johnson said.

Having room to accommodate that evidence is another issue. Officers bringing in evidence store it upstairs before it’s taken to the basement. To take it downstairs, the evidence has to be taken to the elevator, past the front door of the courthouse where the public enters and exits. The process is less secure than Johnson would like.

For officers and detectives examining that evidence, there’s often nowhere to lay it out. On-duty officers have a shared work area when they’re not on patrol that includes computers, equipment and toys to comfort child victims. They sometimes examine evidence before it goes downstairs.

“The same table we’re putting food on, we’re also putting up the nastiest drugs you can imagine,” Capt. Steve Hunt said.

Idaho Falls Police Department tour

Sgt. Josh Deede works in the sergeants' office during a tour of the Idaho Falls Police Department's offices in the courthouse building on Jan. 31. The two offices for sergeants accommodate a total of eight officers.

Each detective has their own desk, a luxury in the department. They’re organized to use as little space as possible. If the department had to hire a new detective, it’d be hard to make room for them.

“There is literally nowhere to put them,” Johnson said.

One detective, Jared Mendenhall, had to be moved to a basement office for space. His office is a windowless room with low lighting, a dreary environment for a detective who often has to examine child pornography evidence.

“We need him up in the light where he has interaction with others,” Johnson said. “What we don’t want is them secluded all by themselves.”

Expanding its footprint

As Idaho Falls’ population grows, so does the needs and responsibilities of its government, requiring the hiring of more employees. That means taxpayers need to cover not only the need for more office space, but more space to store records and equipment.

The city and county have met space needs by buying downtown buildings. The Bonneville County Prosecutor’s Office recently moved from the courthouse to an office on B Street. That vacated office space is being prepared for the Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office to expand into. The sheriff’s office has moved much of its staff to its office in Ammon.

Bonneville County Commissioner Roger Christensen said buying existing downtown buildings near the courthouse is a way to kill two birds with one stone. The county can meet its space needs while filling up space downtown that would otherwise be an empty eyesore. County offices are often moved around as a result of what Christensen characterized as a game of musical chairs. Christensen said the hope is that the space available will allow the county to meet its needs for the next 20 years.

City police have also been expanding into downtown offices, but the result has been dividing their office among several locations.

“There is no home for the Idaho Falls Police Department,” Johnson said. Since its founding in 1895, the department has never had a building of its own, instead renting space and moving when it became too crowded.

The city has been looking at building a police facility for years. A 2018 needs assessment report, drafted by McClaren, Wilson & Lawrie, Inc., estimated the department would need a 61,444-square-foot building to be viable through 2040, estimating the department will grow to 160 employees by then. Both Christensen and Idaho Falls Police Department Spokeswoman Jessica Clements said they were unsure how much square footage the department occupies now for its 106 employees.

Clements said that estimate represents the “dream home” for the police department and not what it’s requesting. The city would need to come up with a budget and location for a new building, and send its own suggestion to the architects. Combining that with the time needed to design and construct the building, and Johnson expects the department will have to make do in its current digs for another four years.

“Unless the city stops growing and starts getting smaller, and people miraculously stop committing crime, we’re going to need some more space,” Johnson said.

Reporter Johnathan Hogan can be reached at 208-542-6746.

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