In little University Heights, big issue of racial profiling up for a ban

Rules on the verge of passing would be first in Iowa, supporter says

(FILE PHOTO) A "vote here" sign rests outside University Heights City Hall on Tuesday, April 3, 2018. (Madison Arnold/The Gazette).

The tiny enclave of University Heights could become the first city in Iowa to ban the use of racial profiling in policing.

Ordinance 235 — spearheaded by City Council members Silvia Quezada and Nick Herbold — prohibits the use of “explicit or implicit biases,” especially in relation to profiling or discriminatory policing practices. It would establish a citizen advisory board to resolve complaints against officers over discriminatory practices and annually review police data.

“This was not something that I thought we needed in order to address an existing problem,” said Herbold, who serves as chair of the city’s Community Protection Committee. “But I think it is something that is needed in order to ensure this community is welcoming and respectful of all people and that we are doing all we can to eliminate bias from our police practices. And I’m not saying we had issues with bias previous to us creating this ordinance, I am just saying we want to have clear policies and procedures in place to ensure explicit or implicit biases so not play a part in enforcement activities.”

The ordinance is expected to go before the City Council on Tuesday for its final consideration. If passed, Quezada said, it would be the first of its kind in Iowa.

The advisory board the ordinance envisions would be made up of at least three city residents, according to records, as well as a person who “holds or held a position in law enforcement of no less than five years” and a member of the NAACP.

Once established, the board would review “complaints of profiling, discriminatory policing practices and allegations of prohibited disparate treatment” that could be lodged against officers, as well as review University Heights Police Department enforcement data each year.

Additionally, the ordinance calls for an expansion in the department’s collection of enforcement data to gather information about all contacts officers have with members of the public. For each interaction, Quezada said officers would be required to report specific data such as the race, gender and age of the person, as well as the reason for the contact.


Quezada said the reporting technology is the same used by Iowa City police and shouldn’t create an undue burden.

“From what I understand, they can fill in these data points at the same time they are writing up their daily reports,” she said. “We just have to update the data collection technology.”

That software is expected to cost the city about $1,800 for the initial installment, according to records.

As part of the data collection program, Herbold said the city has opted to hire an independent expert to review and analyze the data. Records show $5,000 has been allocated from the general fund to “obtain bench marks and insight into the analysis of the data.”

Finally, the ordinance requires that all police officers undergo annual implicit bias training.

According to the city’s website, the force is made up of four full-time officers — including the chief — and three part-time officers.

Quezada said the measure was devised with input from the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa and the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement as a pre-emptive move that would bolster public confidence in a police force that has been in flux.

“The police department has had a sort of revolving door when it comes to police chiefs and other staff,” she said. “There have been three police chiefs appointed in the past three years, and we’ve seen a lot of turnover with the rest of the staff as well.”

University Heights, with a population of about 1,100, has long been considered a speed trap to many who drive through the area to get to Hawkeye football games or the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.


An investigation two years ago by The Gazette found the city issued speeding tickets at a rate nearly 100 times higher than Iowa City in fiscal 2016. That report, Quezada said, “got me thinking about how much contact our officers have with the public.”

“I have no reason to believe that there was any bias or disparate impact involved in those interactions,” she said. “So for me this ordinance was more of a pre-emptive action to make sure our officers are trained in a way that will ensure those interactions do not have a negative impact on the public.”

Herbold’s resolution also allocates $3,000 to pay for an “LED speed limit sign that monitors drivers’ speed with radar.” That sign is to be prominently displayed on Melrose Avenue, a major arterial.

Statewide legislation was proposed last year by Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, but the bill never came to a vote.

His bill also called for date collection on traffic stops and city and professional advisory boards.

Zaun brought the bill forward again in January and it has advanced out of a subcommittee.

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