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Cedar Rapids after Black Lives Matter protests: A united vote for citizens' police review panel

Protestors writes messages in chalk for people to see on the steps of City Hall during a We Won't Be Silenced Peaceful P
Protestors writes messages in chalk for people to see on the steps of City Hall during a We Won’t Be Silenced Peaceful Protest in Greene Square in southeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Saturday, July 18, 2020. The event is sponsored by Advocates for Social Justice. The protest was in response to city officials discontinuing private talks to understand the advocates' police reform demands in favor of a public engagement process. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Editor’s Note: After video last summer captured the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, protests for social justice reverberated across the country, including in the Corridor. Local governments and school districts made promises about how they would respond to the calls to eliminate systematic racism. Now months later, here are updates on where these public agencies stand.

» Read more from: Marion | Iowa City | School districts

CEDAR RAPIDS — City officials and Advocates for Social Justice organizers have worked since last June to advance diversity, equity and inclusion priorities as well as act on seven police reform demands.

When the City Council on June 19, 2020, unanimously backed the demands, members acknowledged work already has been done on a number of items in previous years but intended to continue work in the future. Some of the items, city officials say, would require state or federal law changes.

Creating citizens’ police review board

The City Council last Tuesday unanimously approved the creation of the board, which will be charged with improving community relations and police accountability. The ordinance takes effect this weekend.

The nine-member panel — which is required to be a majority of people of color — will focus on public engagement, advising the city on police department policies and practices and reviewing citizen complaints.

Starting this week, city officials will launch a communications effort to tell the public about the panel’s creation and purpose and to encourage applications through May. Mayor Brad Hart has said he will make appointments in June.

It will take another several months for the members to receive training to better understand the tasks of police before beginning the board’s work. The city’s proposed budget for fiscal 2022, which begins July 1, calls for the panel to be given $25,000.

Invest in diversity, equity and inclusion

Police officers participate in annual implicit bias training and in diversity training for all city employees. All city staff also go through training intended to eliminate physical and communications barriers in city infrastructure, facilities and programs.

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To better respond to calls about mental health incidents, the city’s police department has a Mental Health Team made up of one officer and two liaisons, who are professionals from nonprofit Foundation 2.

Additionally, the city provides funding to support the Safe, Equitable and Thriving Communities Task Force.

The city also committed in August to hiring a diversity, equity and inclusion manager who will advance those priorities across city government. The city is working with a search firm to recruit qualified candidates. The job posting is available and states the individual will report directly to the city manager with a starting salary of between nearly $80,400 to just over $94,450 a year.

Ban police knee-to-neck maneuvers

The Cedar Rapids department already prohibits the use of chokeholds, knee-to-neck maneuvers and other lethal restraining techniques unless “deadly force is justified,” according to its use of force policy.

Officers who witness another officer unduly using force are to intervene, according to policy.

The Gazette previously reported that Cedar Rapids police officers receive regular training in de-escalation techniques.

Impose strict body camera provisions

City policy, adopted in 2018, states that “officers shall activate their cameras to record all contacts with citizens in the performance of official duties.” This requirement includes officers working overtime and extra work assignments and stipulates the camera be worn for the entire work shift.

If an officer fails to record the entire contact in a situation required, the officer must document why and say if there was an interruption.

Officers found to have violated the policy face discipline ranging from demotion to suspension or termination.

Community Development Director Jennifer Pratt has said the citizens’ police review board will have access to a police chief’s report of an investigation into alleged police misconduct showing findings and evidence, including access to body camera footage. But it will not contain identifying information of witnesses, officers or victims.

Decriminalize marijuana

The City Council first indicated a willingness Sept. 22, 2020, to lobby state lawmakers for marijuana reform.

Police Chief Wayne Jerman said at the time he favors lessening the charge of marijuana possession to a simple misdemeanor instead of a serious misdemeanor. This would permit violators be issued a citation instead of being taken into custody.

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One of the city’s legislative priorities this year is requesting the state make minor marijuana crimes a lesser misdemeanor charge. Ultimately, the Iowa Legislature is responsible for determining the category and severity of drug charges.

Jerman had said the current department practice is that unless clear possession is established, officers do not make an arrest but do confiscate the marijuana.

According to the city, in 2019 there were 189 cases where marijuana was found but no one was charged. There were 213 cases in 2018.

Locally, the Cedar Rapids Police Department also has been working with the Linn County Attorney’s Office on the prosecution of marijuana crimes. The County Attorney’s Office established a marijuana diversion program that took effect Jan. 1.

To qualify in the voluntary program, a defendant must be a first-time offender found in possession of a “user-amount quantity of marijuana” and charged with possession of a controlled substance (marijuana) and/or possession of drug paraphernalia.

There are certain stipulations regarding the defendant’s criminal history to participate, including no convictions for violent crimes.

Participants’ charges will be suspended for six months while the defendant obtains a substance abuse evaluation, completes any treatment recommended by it, does 10 hours of community service and appears for all court dates.

Make police union negotiations public

Iowa Code requires the city and union representing the police force to exchange initial proposals in a public meeting. Subsequent negotiation sessions are exempt from the state’s open meetings law.

City Council members do not participate in the negotiations. The council does takes action on a proposed collective bargaining agreement during an open meeting.

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City Manager Jeff Pomeranz recommended at the council’s Sept. 22 meeting that the proposed contract be put on the council’s regular agenda — not its consent agenda, where items routinely are approved with no discussion.

The collective bargaining agreement is posted on the city’s website.

Abolish qualified immunity for officers

City Attorney Jim Flitz said Sept. 22 that qualified immunity is a legal doctrine established by the courts that the city cannot do away with. Qualified immunity does not preclude individuals from seeking damages from an officer who knowingly violates established statutory or constitutional rights.

Cedar Rapids has other methods of promoting accountability, such as an internal process for investigating misconduct complaints. Once in action, the citizens’ police review board will receive a police chief’s report on an incident and may request additional information, and share whether its members agree with disciplinary action.

Individuals with a grievance also may file a complaint with the state Ombudsman’s Office or Civil Rights Commission, or file a lawsuit.

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