Government

Investigation details use of tear gas against Black Lives Matter protesters in Iowa City

City-ordered review released Thursday makes dozens of recommendations

Protesters flee June 3. 2020, as flash bang grenades are set off on Dubuque Street during a march against racial injusti
Protesters flee June 3. 2020, as flash bang grenades are set off on Dubuque Street during a march against racial injustice in Iowa City. Police positioned on Dubuque Street used flash grenades and tear gas in an attempt to stop protesters from entering Interstate 80. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Recommendations in a report investigating the use of tear gas and flash bangs last summer against Black Lives Matter protesters include adding training, clarifying agreements with other law enforcement agencies for aid and communicating better with demonstrators in the future.

All told, the report released Thursday from OIR Group on the June 3, 2020, protest in which Iowa City officers deployed crowd control devices on protesters includes 39 recommendations. It’s now up to the Iowa City Council to review the report and consider the advice.

Iowa City Manager Geoff Fruin said he and new Police Chief Dustin Liston would wait to comment on the 80-page report until later.

“I don’t want staff comments ... to influence the way the City Council or community receive the report,” Fruin said. “We’re going to withhold the comments until they have the opportunity to review that report. What’s most important for the community is what we do with this information going forward.”

The City Council passed a resolution on June 16, 2020, in response to demands of Black Lives Matter protesters. That 17-point resolution included an independent review of the use of tear gas and flash bangs against protesters when a group of demonstrators attempted to gain access to Interstate 80 from Dubuque Street.

OIR Group’s report was based on the review of 82 videos provided by the city — including body camera footage — internal affairs reports, memorandums of understanding and numerous interviews, including with Iowa City police leadership and protesters. University of Iowa police and the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office contributed written to OIR’s questions.

But OIR noted that the Iowa State Patrol — which has jurisdiction over the interstate and led the effort to prevent protesters from accessing it — did not answer its questions.

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“The chance to gain that agency’s perspective would obviously have helped fill relevant gaps in the understanding of influential decision-making that occurred at that time, and the lack of substantive responsiveness to requests for information from ISP is disheartening,” the report reads.

According to a timeline of the events of June 3, roughly 300 to 400 protesters gathered abut 6:30 p.m. on the Pentacrest. The crowd marched through downtown Iowa City while the police department’s Special Response Team deployed to various locations downtown. Shortly before 10 p.m., the crowd moved toward I-80 and by 10:30 p.m., police responded to the Dubuque Street overpass, intent of preventing protesters from accessing the interstate. By 10:46, protesters reached the police line on Dubuque Street and at 11:03 p.m., protesters were warned by the state patrol of their unlawful assembly and ordered to disperse. Less than two minutes later, Iowa City police officers deployed flash bangs and tear gas.

After additional orders to disperse, another round of munitions — pepper balls and tear gas — were deployed at 11:19 p.m. More munitions were deployed at 11:22, 11:23 and 11:31. By 11:41, the demonstrators started to disperse, the report notes.

Following the protest, Iowa City police informed the patrol that it would no longer use such munitions against protesters. OIR recommended developing or refining agreements with other entities to formalize those intentions.

The report also questions whether it was necessary to draw “a line in the sand” at the interstate at all, noting it had been accessed by protesters in 2016 without any significant incident.

OIR Group noted it’s unclear whether police knew the interstate had been closed traffic and that information “should have been a priority.”

“If the law enforcement contingent gathered on Dubuque Street knew or could have known the primary asserted reason for not allowing the crowd to move forward was no longer ‘real,’ then it causes one to question why the police contingent there remained so intent of preventing the crowd from proceeding,” the report reads.

Recommendations from the report include monitoring social media for information on protest activity, taking efforts to reach protest leaders and developing a crowd-control policy requiring strategies for de-escalation.

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The report notes that one Iowa City officer asked about taking a knee to show solidarity with protesters. However, police already had decided against such an action, pointing out that an Iowa City police officer had been assaulted and a Coralville officer knocked out in previous protests, firearms had been seized and social media called for attacking kneeling officers.

Other recommendations from the report include using physical barriers, making sure orders to disperse are audible, using social media to broadcast crowd notifications, giving “wide latitude” to speech activities and demonstrations, limiting the use of pepper ball rounds to aggressive or combative individuals and training more on crowd-control tactics.

The report draws attention to the June 16 resolution passed by City Council and the steps taken since then.

“Our hope, for ICPD and the City, is that the painful chapters of 2020 will be understood in the future as a turning point that redounds to the benefit of all concerned,” the report reads.

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

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