116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — “Race-Based Calls Hurt Us All” is the name of a new campaign in Iowa City that reminds residents not to call 911 based on someone’s race when no crime is occurring.
“Just imagine the impact of having the police called on you for no reason at all. This can cause feelings of anxiety, shame and discomfort,” Bijou Maliabo, a member of the city’s Human Rights Commission, says in a new ideo about race-based 911 calls.
In the video, Iowa City Police Chief Dustin Liston also notes race-based calls are illegal. People calling 911 when there is no emergency can be charged with a simple misdemeanor, punishable by fines up to $625.
The video is part of a new campaign called Race-Based Calls Hurt Us All, which is being spearheaded by Lee Hermiston, the city’s public information officer and a former Gazette reporter.
The Gazette talked with Hermiston about the campaign and what the city hopes to achieve through it.
Q: How common are race-based 911 calls in Iowa City?
A: We don’t track these kind of calls locally and don’t have any reason to believe they are a common issue here. However, members of the community have expressed concerns about these kind of 911 calls, and we as a city wanted to take action before it became a problem.
Q: What inspired the new campaign?
A: During City Council listening posts, members of our community voiced their concerns about race-based 911 calls. This campaign is designed to show our support for members of our community potentially affected by race-based calls and to condemn the calls as a city.
The campaign is part of the city’s ongoing efforts to divert unnecessary calls to the Iowa City Police Department and help limit potentially negative interactions.
Q: What additional work is being done, beyond the initial video, to reduce race-based calls?
A: We will continue to share the information and video that has already been shared, and we would welcome opportunities to speak with community groups or individuals about the importance of this effort.
Organizations and individuals are also encouraged to spread the message in their own channels.
Q: Who is taking charge on this campaign, the Iowa City Police Department or the city’s Human Rights Commission?
A: This effort has been a collaboration between the police department, the Human Rights Commission and the city’s communications office. I’ll continue to spearhead our efforts, and I welcome any feedback on spreading our message.
Q: What is the best practice for police officers responding to a 911 call that seems like it might be race-based?
A: Officers must treat each 911 call like it is a legitimate emergency until they determine otherwise, which is why this campaign is so important. Calling 911 based on race or other protected classes — rather than for an actual emergency — harms the subject of the call and is not a good use of our resources.
Q: How are officers being trained to educate community members on this issue?
A: Officers are always encouraged to help the public understand the consequences of their actions and help steer them toward other resources or better means to resolve their issues that don’t involve calling 911 when an emergency isn’t occurring. Our goal is compliance through education rather than enforcement.
Q: What recommendations do you have for someone who is facing racism in the community or who has the police called on them based on their race?
A: If it is in the area of education, employment, credit, housing or public accommodation, they can contact their local civil rights agency to file a complaint. If they do not have a local civil rights agency, they can contact the state of Iowa’s Civil Rights Commission.
Q: What recommendations do you have for bystanders who witness such acts of racism?
A: Anyone who witnesses acts of racism is encouraged to speak up, address the behavior, reach out to the person experiencing the racism, document or report it, or try to educate the individual acting in a racist manner. Trying to do something is always better than doing nothing.
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