CEDAR RAPIDS — A citizens’ review board crafted to hold local law enforcement accountable and promote equity in policing received final City Council approval Tuesday, marking a key step forward in city officials’ efforts to meet racial justice advocates’ demands for police reform.
After months of collaboration between community leaders and city officials, the council at its meeting Tuesday approved the ordinance creating the panel. This established only the second such board in Iowa along with Iowa City and added another to the less than 200 civilian oversight panels in communities across the United States.
Cedar Rapids’ ordinance outlines the panel’s structure and scope of duties, which advocates and city officials crafted as a review model board. The nine members would be focused on public engagement, advising the city on police department policies and practices, and reviewing citizen complaints, as well as serving on the committee that hires the police chief.
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Mayor Brad Hart said the panel will go into effect over the weekend. Starting next week, Hart said the city would launch a communications effort to encourage residents to apply to the board and inform them of its creation.
Applications will be accepted through May and he will make appointments with council input in June.
City officials will work with nonprofits and local agencies to boost the number of applications, Hart said, and to let people know “this is really just a great opportunity to amplify the voices for those who have been underrepresented in our community.”
The ordinance requires at least five of the nine board members be people of color. Three members would be from the public; one a lawyer; three chosen from applications from individuals associated with groups that advocate for racial justice; and two would be employed by or volunteer with service providers who work in the areas of mental health, physical health, homelessness, food insecurity or other social issues.
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It will take several months after the members are selected for the board to become fully operational as the members need training. Police Chief Wayne Jerman has said training would cover the department’s operational and investigative units’ policies and procedures to educate participants on the duties of police officers.
The city’s proposed budget for fiscal 2022, which begins July 1, calls for $25,000 to support the board’s activities. City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said Monday it is unknown at this time exactly what resources the panel would need but the funds are budgeted to meet the needs that arise.
Similarly, the board in Iowa City is charged with recommending changes to police department policies and procedures and reviewing citizen complaints. Iowa City’s panel may issue its own reports on investigations of complaints, but has limited civil administrative review powers.
Community activists there have called for city officials to provide the board, which has reviewed complaints since 1997, with more authority to ensure fair investigations into alleged police misconduct.
The Advocates for Social Justice, the group that pushed the council to back seven demands for police reform in Cedar Rapids after George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police, initially proposed a model with broad investigative powers. The advocates’ board members have said they are satisfied with the panel’s powers and feel the final structure is the most effective model in Iowa and beyond.
“It’s a win for everyone,” Amara Andrews, an Advocates for Social Justice board member, recently told The Gazette. “It’s a win for the police department, it’s a win for the community, it’s a win for people of color, it’s a win for ASJ.”
The board will have access to a police chief’s report show findings and evidence, including access to body camera footage that would not contain identifying information of witnesses, victims or officers, Community Development Director Jennifer Pratt has said.
Members could seek additional information from the police chief and ask subject matter experts to participate in the conversation. The members take a majority vote to determine what level of review to give a police chief’s report and whether they agree, need additional information or disagree and need to provide recommendations.
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After the panel’s review of a complaint and of the police chief’s investigation, members would issue a public report to the council regarding its investigation. This would detail the findings of fact and articulate a conclusion, but it would not contain identifying information of complainants, witnesses or officers. Members may comment generally on whether the discipline is appropriate though personnel matters will not be included in the report.
Adopting the review board positions Cedar Rapids among more than 150 other communities with such panels across the country. But just five communities with these panels are also accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies like Cedar Rapids, which city officials have said placed the city in an “exclusive category” as a leader in law enforcement.
Cameron McEllhiney, the director of training and education with the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, the group that worked with city officials and community members to conduct focus groups in the public engagement process, told the council Jan. 26 that a great ordinance resulted from this process.
“It will begin the work of building relationships and creating trust in the communities where it may not currently exist,” McElhaney said. “Out of the nearly 200 oversight agencies throughout the United States, I will tell you that no two look alike and Cedar Rapids is an example of that. There are parts of this that are nuanced because it’s for Cedar Rapids, it’s not for any other community.”
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