Iowa City police chief brings good change in first year

'We're not stopping everything that moves'

Iowa City police chief Jody Matherly talks during a press conference on the Jonathan Wieseler homicide investigation at City Hall in Iowa City on Monday, Nov. 20, 2017. Curtis Jones, who is currently in jail on a separate murder charge, has been charged with first degree murder in the April 22, 2017 death of Jonathan Wieseler. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Iowa City police chief Jody Matherly talks during a press conference on the Jonathan Wieseler homicide investigation at City Hall in Iowa City on Monday, Nov. 20, 2017. Curtis Jones, who is currently in jail on a separate murder charge, has been charged with first degree murder in the April 22, 2017 death of Jonathan Wieseler. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Iowa City’s new police chief is making his mark during his first year on the job.

Jody Matherly delivered an update to the City Council on crime trends this week. Matherly was confirmed as police chief in January, following terms in the same job in Altoona and Grinnell.

Matherly said he’s implemented several new processes and strategies since he arrived. He described them as “focused deterrence,” in contrast to the scattershot approach some other departments take.

“We’re not sending officers out and stopping everything that moves. It’s ineffective policing. It’s a waste of manpower. … Using those techniques erodes trust and it’s certainly not the way we want to operate,” Matherly said.

That’s a welcome change for criminal justice advocates like me. Johnson County and the rest of the state have suffered from an embarrassing string of racial disparity reports over the past decade.

Iowa has repeatedly ranked among the worst states for racial disparities in the American Civil Liberties Union’s criminal justice analyses. A 2013 tally called Iowa the very worst state for arresting black people for marijuana, and singled out Johnson County as the third-worst jurisdiction in Iowa.

A study presented to the Iowa City Council in 2014 found about 10 percent of drivers throughout Iowa City were minorities, yet they accounted for about 19 percent of traffic stops as recently as 2012. The data showed minority drivers were also more likely to be searched, even though searches of white drivers were more likely to turn up illegal material.

And most recently, a Sentencing Project review last year found Iowa among five states with more than 10 times as many black people in state prisons as white people. It also showed Iowa has the third-highest rate nationally of locking up black men.

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For those of us who are critical of law enforcement, it would be easy to chalk those figures up to racist policing, but the reality isn’t so simple.

Policing is a product of policy. When politicians and administrators put bad rules in place, we see bad outcomes. With good rules, outcomes can improve.

It remains to be seen what impact Matherly’s strategies will have on racial disparities in the justice system. Still, it’s encouraging to finally have a police chief who openly emphasizes the need to build trust in neighborhoods with the highest police presence.

Crime is heavy on Iowans’ minds, as several communities were shocked by a spike in murders and other weapons offenses this year. Iowa City logged four murders in 2017, compared to just two in the previous five years combined.

However, police officials expect Iowa City’s murders to be an anomaly, and overall crime trends for the year to be in line with the past several years. Group A crimes, which are generally more serious offenses and are tracked by the federal government, have hovered around 4,500 each of the past five years.

“We’re on pace with what we were last year, and about the last five years. … The upside is we are able to solve many of these crimes. The downside is they occur,” Matherly said.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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