116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Civilian oversight boards for police are trendy in Iowa, with Cedar Rapids and Coralville among the cities installing new boards in the past year. However, communities looking to strengthen their oversight panels will run into barriers in state law.
Officials in Iowa City - by far the first city in the state to establish a police review board of police, back in 1997 - recently discussed recommendations for improving their Citizen Police Review Board. While some of the suggestions are being taken up, others were deemed illegal by city staff.
A key point is that board members want some follow-up about whether their sustained complaints lead to discipline against officers who commit misconduct. The city attorney said that would be illegal.
It doesn’t give the public much confidence that misconduct is being dealt with appropriately.
Under Iowa’s open government laws, most employee discipline records can be kept confidential. Additionally, Gov. Kim Reynolds’ “Back the Blue” law passed this year and the “Peace Officers Bill of Rights” in Iowa Code put special restrictions on police discipline processes.
The thing is, though, police review board members already get confidential information in closed session as part of the review process, where officers are identified by numbers to keep them anonymous. Maybe they could be given basic details about discipline the same way?
No, according to City Attorney Eric Goers. He said anonymized updates in closed session still would not be allowed. Because there are so few cases, he said, officers might be indirectly identified. Goers also said aggregate info about how many complaints lead to discipline would not be legal.
Over more than 20 years, 119 complaints have been filed with Iowa City’s review board. Of those, just 16 were sustained. We have to wonder whether the lack of complaints has something to do with the fact that the board is widely seen as toothless.
Police Chief Dustin Liston said all sustained complaints lead to some kind of “corrective action” but that might be as soft as verbal counseling. It doesn’t give the public much confidence that misconduct is being dealt with appropriately.
Council members at the recent meeting lamented the state’s restrictions and took their shots at their Republican opponents, but none of them suggested the city should lobby to change the law. To move forward, the city needs a clear vision of what authorities an effective police review board would have, even if it’s not possible right now.
Citizens in a free society have a basic right to know what goes on in the police departments that wield deadly force over us. Right now, that’s not happening in Iowa.
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