116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Almost a year after a police officer was caught on video murdering a Minnesota man, corridor cities are making progress toward stronger oversight and accountability of law enforcement.
The international protest movement that formed in response to the police killings of George Floyd and other Black Americans has led to policy change at an unprecedented pace. Local governments accustomed to yearslong reform projects have been forced to take meaningful action. Several months in, a vision for smarter policing is coming into focus.
The Iowa City Police Department recently sent officers to be trained in Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement, or ABLE, through the Innovative Policing Program at Georgetown University. The training, which all Iowa City officers will undergo this year, teaches strategies for intervening in police misconduct.
When the public sees video footage of police violence, like with Floyd’s murder, we often are outraged that fellow officers didn’t step in. Bystander training encourages officers to be proactive in preventing misconduct. The training is supported by racial justice and civil rights groups, including NAACP and ACLU chapters from around the country
“While this type of loyalty to members of the in-group is not unique to law enforcement officers … the consequences of such a culture within the police profession are particularly pernicious due to the number of interactions between police officers and community members on any given day,” wrote Catherine Sanderson, an ABLE program adviser, in a recent USA Today column.
Iowa City and other local departments recently adopted or enhanced their duty to intervene policies, which require officers to intervene when their colleagues use excessive force. Those policies paired with adequate training could help prevent a deadly tragedy like the ones we have seen in other communities.
Cedar Rapids this year will become the third city in Iowa to install a board to review complaints against police officers, joining Iowa City and University Heights. We are firmly supportive of the city’s efforts, but we have some concerns.
Membership on Cedar Rapids’ Citizen Review Board requires significant training requirements. Those selected will have to take a 30-hour course in their first six months and an additional 10 hours each year under the police chief’s direction. They also must do 16 hours worth of police ride-alongs each year. That’s all in addition to regular meetings of the board.
For comparison, Iowa City’s Community Police Review Board only calls for an orientation briefing to inform members about policies and bylaws. Members are given the option to participate in the city’s Citizens Police Academy, but it’s not required.
Cedar Rapids leaders acknowledge their training requirements are on the high side compared to similar panels nationally, but they say it’s necessary for members to know the department’s policies and procedures.
The hefty time requirement might be a barrier to participation, especially for wage workers and parents of young children. And the police chief’s control of the training curriculum might give the false impression that the board is subordinate to the police department, although we expect the board also will seek advice from non-police sources.
Encouragingly, the city has already received some 50 applications for the Citizens’ Review Board, which are being accepted until May 31. Community members should pay close attention to who is selected and who fulfills their terms as indicators of whether the stringent requirements are workable.
Police in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and Marion are expanding their mental health personnel.
Departments are partnering with Cedar Rapids’ Foundation 2 and Iowa City’s CommUnity crisis centers to place civilian staff specifically trained to manage mental health crises. Iowa City also has a new collaboration with Shelter House for a street outreach coordinator.
People experiencing homelessness, mental illness and problematic drug use are especially ill served by the traditional law enforcement and incarceration models. They claim an inordinate share of public safety resources and the system often exacerbates their crises, a lose-lose for everyone.
Linn and Johnson counties have new access centers that provide an alternative to jail cells and hospital beds — the GuideLink Center in Iowa City and the Mental Health Access Center in Cedar Rapids. Clients can be referred by police or other service providers without an appointment. Staff provide immediate care to stabilize clients and offer referrals to other services.
While those projects are in their infancy, they show great potential to enable better use of police resources.
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