Government

Iowa City police review board 'powerless,' critics say

Special City Council meeting called for today to discuss next steps

Iowa City Council member Mazahir Salih speaks to protesters during a rally last Thursday in Iowa City against racial inj
Iowa City Council member Mazahir Salih speaks to protesters during a rally last Thursday in Iowa City against racial injustice. (Nick Rohlman/Freelance)

IOWA CITY — When Mazahir Salih joined Iowa City’s Community Police Review Board in 2013, she was excited about the opportunity.

Salih said she hoped to review complaints of possible wrongdoing by police officers and — if those officers acted inappropriately — ensure they were disciplined or received more training.

Instead, Salih — who resigned from the review board and joined the City Council in 2018 — said she found the board had too little authority.

“It’s powerless,” she said.

Protesters across the nation have been calling for more public accountability of police, from redirecting money from departmental budgets to meet other needs to banning military-style equipment to ratcheting up citizen oversight.

In Iowa City, the Iowa Freedom Riders have demanded — among other things — a citizens’ board “with real power, including subpoena power and the ability to enact and enforce measurable consequences when board recommendations are not followed or implemented.”

A similar demand was made by protesters in Cedar Rapids, which currently does not have any sort of external organization reviewing complaints against police.

Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman on Tuesday told The Gazette he welcomes the opportunity to address protesters’ concerns — including that of a citizens review board.

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Jerman said there are many types of review boards that have varying responsibilities and powers, and it is not yet clear what would work best in Cedar Rapids.

“That’s what really needs to be worked on, and discussed, because there are … different types of review boards and review processes and different levels of authority and whatnot,” he said. “And also the fact that there are various state laws, various personnel policies and areas of confidentiality that, you know, may have an impact on what exactly the review board is going to be able to accomplish. So, I’m very open and working with people to establish a process that will continue to increase the relationship, and the level of trust between the police department and the community.”

Established in 1997, Iowa City’s Community Police Review Board — formerly the Police Citizens Review Board and Iowa City Citizens Police Review Board — is to “review investigations into claims of police misconduct, and to assist the police chief, the city manager, and the City Council in evaluating the overall performance of the police department by reviewing the police department’s investigations into complaints,” according to the fiscal 2019 annual report.

According to a review of five years’ worth of annual reports, the panel received 25 complaints between July 1, 2013, and June 30, 2019. Eleven were filed in fiscal 2015.

In that time, the board issued 18 public reports either sustaining or not sustaining the allegations. Some reports contain multiple allegations, meaning there are more allegations than reports.

In that time frame, there have been six sustained allegations, including excessive force, questionable interview and interrogation tactics, a citation that should not have been issued, failure by an officer to activate a body camera and one sustained allegation of “discourtesy.”

Salih said when the board reviewed a complaint, members would ask the chief to provide all the information related to it, including any audio and video recordings. The chief would also add his thoughts.

Salih said in her experience, the police chief sided with the officers.

After its review, the board would then determine if the complaint was sustained or not sustained. Its decision then went to the City Council.

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Salih said she sees numerous issues with the way the review board operates. She said the police department investigates complaints against itself, rather than having them investigated by an independent party.

The board also has no authority to order an officer to be disciplined or undergo additional training, Salih said. While the board might recommend training, she said the police department does not report back on whether that training was implemented or completed.

“Do they take our recommendations seriously? We don’t know that,” she said.

Finally, while reports are issued to the City Council, they are included in the consent agenda, which typically includes many routine items not extensively discussed by members, Salih said.

When there is a sustained complaint, “you’re not going to look at it as a whole council. The police chief isn’t going to do anything. It dies. That’s it,” Salih said.

A hurdle in making changes to the review board could be state law, however. During a special City Council work session Tuesday, member Susan Mims said she understands state law prevents an entity like the Community Police Review Board from forcing officers to testify.

“I don’t think that’s possible, but we can certainly ask the question,” Mims said.

Salih said some of the protesters’ demands are outside the scope of the council and she has urged them to contact the appropriate governing body. But she said she wants the council to take on the issues over which it does have the authority.

Comments: (319) 339-3155; lee.hermiston@thegazette.com

Kat Russell of The Gazette contributed to this report.

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