116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — One candidate vying to become Cedar Rapids mayor asserted at a forum Saturday that systemic racism exists in law enforcement — an issue that George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police last May pushed to the forefront of national conversation — but the two other candidates waffled on whether they agree.
Former Mayor Ron Corbett, the moderator of the first mayoral candidate forum of the campaign cycle leading up to the Nov. 2 election, asked all three candidates about a November Gazette article profiling Cedar Rapids police Officer E.J. Merriweather. In the article, the Black officer said he does not believe systemic racism exists, though he believes there are racist people. The candidates were asked if they concur.
Advocates for Social Justice board Vice President Amara Andrews said she “unequivocally” disagreed.
“Systemic racism is basically systemic power,” Andrews said. “It’s when a system gives power or privilege to a group over another group, and then there’s a disparate impact to the other group."
She cited an American Civil Liberties Union study showing that a Black person in Iowa is 7.3 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person. And, she noted, that of 219 sworn personnel in the Cedar Rapids Police Department, there are four Black officers, according to the department’s 2019 annual report.
Mayor Brad Hart said “there’s just not a way” to give a yes or no answer. One person quickly spoke up in the audience to say, “yes there is.”
Hart said Merriweather is closer to the issue and it’s “certainly Officer Merriweather’s opinion.” The mayor also noted the police department has a coveted accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, indicating it is a high-quality and well-trained department.
“If he’s talking in the country, it’s clear that some of the 18,000-plus police departments in the country still have systemic racism,” Hart said.
Another mayoral candidate, Women Lead Change Chief Executive Officer Tiffany O’Donnell, said, “Nationally it’s clear that we do have systemic racism.”
But about Cedar Rapids police, she said, “I’m proud to know many of our officers. I respect and admire the ones that they do here and they put their lives on the line every day, and I’m just grateful.”
O’Donnell said she knows some people are angry and it’s a “highly emotional issue today, rightfully so,” and she supports proactive policing as well as providing resources for mental health support.
Watch a replay of the forum here:
Corbett moved onto a question about how the candidates would track progress on city initiatives.
Before responding, Andrews asked to “go back to that last question, because I think I was the only person that answered it.”
She agreed the Cedar Rapids police are well-trained and said, “I agree that our police have a tough, tough job and probably most of them are doing the best that they can. But we have to look at the data and you have to be able to be courageous and honest and open about what the data reveals.”
Several attendees clapped before she answered that she envisioned a public-facing dashboard of data, but said this work requires more than checking off an item on a list. Diversity needs to be celebrated and acknowledged every day, she said.
“We need to take the time to celebrate the humanity, to celebrate diversity and humanity, not just when it’s Black History Month or Women’s History Month or when it’s Pride Month,” Andrews said. “We should be celebrating and recognizing diversity, we should include it in our education. This is something that should be in our blood.”
O’Donnell drew on her experience at the helm of Women Lead Change, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering the advancement and development of women. She pitched a vision of open, accessible and transparent leadership, and emphasized bolstering the strengths of people and groups already doing great work in the city — such as supporting neighborhood association leaders.
Diversity is “not quotas or check the boxes,” O’Donnell said, but something that requires intentionality. To recruit people from different backgrounds and with different identities for various opportunities, she said it is key to find people and bring them to the table.
It is “what makes us vibrant and alive, it’s what attracts businesses and individuals that value that,” she said. “ … “Diversity, equity and inclusion is my job today and every day.”
During the forum, Hart said the community is better, stronger and more interesting when it is diverse.
Hart noted the city is centering equity in a number of current initiatives, such as its Community Climate Action Plan and in the ReLeaf plan to replenish trees lost in the Aug. 10, 2020, derecho over the course of 10 or more years. Hart also said the city is proceeding with hiring a diversity, equity and inclusion manager to advance those priorities.
He said the citizens’ police review board — which the City Council backed as one of seven Advocates for Social Justice demands for police reform — will be “one of the best.” It will promote transparency and trust between communities and the police who serve them, he said.
“There’s a lot of positive things that are happening,” Hart said, highlighting derecho recovery efforts and Paving for Progress street repairs, “and diversity, equity and inclusion is a key thing. We’re committed to moving forward in all these areas. This is a terrific community and it has a very bright future when we all work together.”
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