Arson and arson related offenses are set forth in Chapter 712 of the Iowa Code. The number of arson and arson related prosecutions in the Polk County Attorney’s Office has steadily increased over the last 20 years causing several changes in the way these cases are investigated and prosecuted. The Des Moines Police Department and the Des Moines Fire Department, recognizing their dependence on one another in investigating these crimes, have created joint teams of investigators who each bring a different perspective and specialty to the investigation of these crimes. Experienced Des Moines Police Detectives and Des Moines Fire Investigators are paired with one another to investigate suspicious fires. Generally, firefighters are trained to suppress fires and then to make an effort to determine what caused the fire and where it started. This is referred to as cause and origin. Police officers on the other hand, are trained to detect and investigate crimes which include specialized training in the interview of witnesses and suspects. As a team, both the police officer and the fire department investigator, go through extensive specialized training. One of these teams is on call 24 hours a day. When firefighters respond to a fire, they are trained to look for certain things as the fire suppression effort proceeds. All fires leave behind clues that most of us are not trained to look for. Detecting the smell of gasoline or some other accelerant is one of the obvious clues that firefighters will be on the look out for during fire suppression efforts. If anything appears to them to be suspicious, the on call arson investigation team is called and they arrive at the scene immediately to begin their specialized investigation. They in turn will contact one of the specially trained attorneys in the office of the Polk County Attorney to discuss their findings, request a warrant or to further develop the investigation.
All of the municipalities in Polk County assist one another in these investigations when necessary. Cooperation among these police and fire departments is critically important. Additionally, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has served as a lightening rod in forging a spirit of cooperation throughout the State of Iowa among arson investigators in all jurisdictions. They assist local authorities with arson investigations when asked. Further, they provide state of the art training to both investigators and prosecutions.
Chapter 712 of the Iowa Code outlines Arson and Arson related offenses that range in seriousness from Reckless Use of Fire which is punishable by up to one year in jail or prison to Arson in the First Degree, which is a Class B Felony, punishable by up to 25 years in prison. If someone dies as a result of arson, it becomes a Class A Felony punishable by life in prison.