‘Groundbreaker’ Gracie Vrieze retires from PD after 3 decades

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A few of her co-workers posed for a photo with Gracie. Front row from left: Detective Breanna Nieland, Gracie Vrieze, Officer Alyssa Solem. Back: Chief Chris Cole, Lt. Ray Eickholt, Officer Gerardo Bravo, Officer Mitchel McDonald. Photo by Dolores Cullen
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After battling cancer, Covid, it’s time for family

By Dolores Cullen, Storm Lake Times Pilot

Community Service Officer Gracie Vrieze wraps up her 29½-year career with the Storm Lake Police Department with a list of impressive accomplishments and the admiration of the Storm Lake community.

“Gracie was and is a groundbreaker,” says former Storm Lake Police Chief Mark Prosser, who hired her in 1993.

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Vrieze, 54, was the first community service officer and multilingual staff person employed by the police department and the city. 

She was one of the first, if not the first, multilingual community service officers in the State of Iowa.

“Through her service, Gracie helped groom the community service officer program in such a fashion that it has been nationally recognized in print and video media for over two decades,” adds Prosser.

Health concerns have played into her decision to retire at this time, she said. “I had really wanted to make it at least 30 years.” 

She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006 and she fights back as the cancer reoccurs. Over the years she became known as an inspirational survivor. 

In 2020 she was hospitalized with COVID-19 at St. Luke’s in Sioux City. This was before any vaccines were available. “I was close to dying,” she told the Storm Lake Times Pilot. “I was in a coma and intubated.” 

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She had to battle side affects also. Even walking was a challenge. “I really wanted to work,” she says, but it would be several weeks until she was able to.

Former Police Chief Mark Prosser hired Gracie Vrieze nearly 30 years ago.

Storm Lake’s first CSO

Vrieze had been working on the line at IBP when she applied for the CSO position. She had also been an interpreter at the hospital at the time. 

As CSO, her major responsibility was interpreting for the Latino population, which involved about 300 families at the time. Among her other duties were helping with house watches, ambulance assists, funeral escorts, security in stores, parking tickets, abandoned vehicles and helping with community service in the schools.

But as it turned out, Gracie was thrust into some of the most serious, high profile and dangerous investigations the department handled, according to Prosser, “and she always responded with grace, with professionalism and with dignity.”

She was instrumental in a counterfeiting case, which brought the Secret Service to town. 

“I remember some of the tragic ones,” said Vrieze. She mentioned the fire that took the lives of two young children and their uncle at Vista Estates Mobile Home Park in 1996. She looks back sadly at the incident in which a 17-year-old drowned.

 When Vrieze was the only person in the department who spoke Spanish, it fell on her to convince a man to drop his gun “Like in the movies,” she told a gathering at Our Place in 2019. The man was in a house and she spoke to him over a megaphone in a calm voice until he gave up his rifle.

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Vrieze was not daunted, even by the more challenging tasks. “I really enjoy my job,” she said. 

People call Vrieze or show up at her door. “People come to my house because they have problems or court papers and they don’t know what they mean.”

“She was priceless when working with children victims and families going through crisis who had suffered great loss,” said Prosser, but he added that, “Gracie spoke her mind and was no pushover. She asked questions when questions needed to be asked.”

The entire Vrieze family attended. Front row, from left: Ana, Lihley, Gracie, Montserrat, Elijah (in front), Raymond. Back:
Stephanie, Terry, Vanessa, Yicel (Alan’s wife), Alan.
Photo by Dolores Cullen

Ready to retire

“Terry wanted me to quit working a couple years ago,” she says of her husband. He understood the stress she was under. 

The two met in Mexico. Terry was with the service stationed on the border at Yuma, Ariz. They went on to have six children: Alan, now in Denison; and Jennifer, Stephanie, Vanessa, Ana and Montserrat (who’s now 11), all in Storm Lake. 

They’ll be happy to see more of Gracie now. “My kids will be happy to see mom not in uniform,” she says. 

Speaking of uniforms, in her 29½ years with the department, she went through three uniform changes.   

“What I’ll miss most is being with everybody,” said Vrieze of her upcoming retirement.

She expressed gratitude for the times the community rallied behind her. She mentioned cancer fundraisers. “It was amazing.”

And in the end, her late nights, the phone calls, the assistance to the person trapped in the elevator at Senior Housing, it was all part of the job she loved.

“I always like to help people,” she says. “It makes me feel good inside.”

Gracie received a plaque from the Storm Lake Police Department
Photo by Dolores Cullen

‘She has truly been a pioneer in community-building’

By Storm Lake Police Chief Chris Cole

In the early 1990s, Storm Lake was experiencing a large influx of Hispanic immigrants.  There was a lack of interpreters and very little knowledge about the Spanish culture. Officers often faced language barriers with contacts on the streets. Many of our residents were immigrating to Storm Lake from countries where there was fear, distrust and a disconnect between the citizens and the police. This lack of trust and fear often made them feel marginalized.  Some even felt they had no access to justice.  Crime victims would not report crimes because they didn’t trust the police, or they didn’t know how to report, because they didn’t speak the language. This often led to more victimization and more criminal activity, none of which were reported.

Chief Mark Prosser was forward thinking enough to recognize this problem and formulated Gracie’s Community Service Officer position in an effort to help build trust between the police and the community. Since the program was new, there was no blueprint, playbook or manual on how to achieve the goal.  Gracie’s work and dedication with the SLPD community outreach efforts has paved the way to what is now a very successful community policing model for diverse communities.  I believe her work has made Storm Lake a safer community.

Building community trust takes a lot of time and a lot of effort. It’s not a 9-to-5 job.  When Gracie first started, she was one of the only Spanish interpreters in the area.  She was called at all hours of the night to assist with interpretation, not just from the SLPD, but from the hospital and other various organizations.  It would be shocking to know how many babies she has helped deliver in the past 29 years. She still takes calls at home, at all hours, for all kinds of reasons. It’s amazing, how many police reports have been initiated from a resident making a phone call to Gracie.

I have had the privilege and honor of working with Gracie for the past 29 years. She’s taught me a lot about Spanish traditions and culture. She has also been instrumental in helping me learn how to speak Spanish. She’s an amazing human, who has made many positive impacts on many lives.  I have nothing but respect for her.

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