Government

Creating citizens' review board of Cedar Rapids police nears vote

Social justice advocates, police chief support proposal

Protesters writes messages in chalk July 18 for people to see on the steps of City Hall during a #x201c;We Won't Be Sile
Protesters writes messages in chalk July 18 for people to see on the steps of City Hall during a “We Won’t Be Silenced” protest in Greene Square in southeast Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — A proposal resulting from a collaboration between city and community leaders and independent experts to form a citizens’ police review board will come for approval Tuesday to the Cedar Rapids City Council, advancing a key demand from racial justice advocates.

The council will consider an ordinance for creating a panel that would hold local law enforcement more accountable and deepen ties to the community, especially with underrepresented groups.

Creating a review board was one of seven demands that local group Advocates for Social Justice put forth in June after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police, which sparked civil unrest across the nation.

“It’s a win for everyone,” said Amara Andrews, an Advocates for Social Justice board member. “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 ordinance lays out the members’ duties. These include reviewing quarterly reports with data such as traffic stops and arrests broken down by demographics and tracking progress on certain metrics; serving on the committee that hires the police chief; overseeing a monitoring system for tracking complaints against officers; and soliciting public input on departmental practices.

City staff and Advocates members said they feel confident the model s best for Cedar Rapids — and potentially the most effective one in Iowa and beyond, particularly because of input from an independent group with expertise on such citizens’ review boards.

Representatives from that organization, the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, helped develop the final ordinance draft and facilitate focus groups.

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“NACOLE has had the pleasure of working with the City and Advocates for Social Justice as they developed the ordinance to establish civilian oversight in the City of Cedar Rapids.” Cameron McEllhiney, its director of training and education, said in a statement. “The discourse, commitment and collaboration that we have seen between these two entities throughout the process is an example for other cities to follow.”

The city’s Community Development director, Jennifer Pratt, said thanks to the collaboration, the proposal is more than a “symbolic effort.”

“We do focus groups all the time in our department, but because of the input we got from ASJ, that helped us make sure that the language we were using, the questions we were asking, getting their perspective, we got much better information back,” Pratt said.

Assistant City Manager Angie Charipar said this will be a “sustainable and a long-term real initiative to ensure that we’re focusing on this every day, so that it’s not something that’s a side thing. That it is really just ingrained in city employees, whether it be the police department or all across the city, so that it’s something that doesn’t seem special anymore, but really just part of who we are.”

Draft Ordinance for the Cedar Rapids Citizens' Review Board by Gazetteonline on Scribd

Adopting the review board would position Cedar Rapids among 166 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, placing the city in an “exclusive category, said Community Development Assistant Director Bill Micheel.

If the council approves it on first consideration, it would then be read a second and potentially a third time at the Feb. 9 meeting, Micheel said. If a separate third reading is needed, that would come Feb. 23.

Then people could apply for a spot on the unpaid, nine-member board. The mayor would appoint members with input and approval from the council.

At least five members would identify as 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 such as the NAACP, League of United Latin American Citizens, Iowa Asian Alliance, Advocates for Social Justice or United We March Forward; 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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Additionally, members would undergo training before assuming their duties, so it would take several more months before the panel is fully operational.

Police Chief Wayne Jerman said the members also would undergo the 10-week Citizens Police Academy program, though it is now suspended because of COVID-19. This training covers the department’s operational and investigative units’ policies and procedures to educate participants on the duties of police officers.

“Short of actually applying to be a police officer, this training gives civilians, citizens a firsthand look at what this police department does, why we do it, different techniques and tactics,” Jerman said.

Jerman said he has communicated his support of the effort to the police force and he views this as something that will promote transparency beyond the department’s ongoing efforts.

There’s much work to be done, Andrews said, but an effective review board model would help.

“It would be great if it changed the perception of the police department in the community so that the perception is that the police are there to protect and serve the community, and not an antagonistic relationship,” Andrews said. “ ... With both the community and the police department supporting this initiative, hopefully we’re building bridges and working together and making our communities safer for everyone.

Advocates for Social Justice member Anne Harris Carter said this collaboration serves as a blueprint for future talks over other initiatives.

“I’d love for Cedar Rapids to be known for that,” Harris Carter said. “It’s a welcoming place for everyone. Do we always agree with each other? Heck no. But do we figure out how to support each other? That’s what I’d love to see from my hometown.”

Comments: (319) 398-8494; marissa.payne@thegazette.com

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