Government

Iowa City changing police force - and chief

Vacancy could be filled before department reshaped

Iowa City Council member Mazahir Salih speaks June 4 to protesters as Mayor Bruce Teague (left) watches during a protest
Iowa City Council member Mazahir Salih speaks June 4 to protesters as Mayor Bruce Teague (left) watches during a protest in Iowa City against racial injustice. (Nick Rohlman/Freelance)

IOWA CITY — In response to protester demands, the Iowa City Council earlier this month vowed to restructure its police department, leaving two big questions to be answered later: What will the new department look like, and who will lead it?

The city has been without a permanent police chief since former Chief Jody Matherly retired in February. With an interim chief at the helm since then, the city launched a search for a new chief — weeks before widespread protests across that nation called for police reforms and the Iowa City Council vowed to take action.

City Manager Geoff Fruin is in the process of reviewing candidates with an eye toward interviewing them in July and presenting an appointment for approval in late August or September.

City Council members — whose confirmation Fruin must obtain for his choice — acknowledge that the timing of these two processes presents a challenge. Chief candidates are interviewing for a job and a department that could be significantly altered in the coming months and year.

“It’s a challenge to come in when probably your job description is in the process of changing,” said council member Janice Weiner. “That takes someone who is a very flexible and community-oriented leader.”

Council member Laura Bergus agreed, Coming into this position will be a “tall order,” given the changes likely to occur later this year.

“I’m saying all of that without having an understanding of what that person’s role will be going forward,” she said.

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However, Weiner, Bergus and others on the council said they believe the selection process also presents an opportunity.

“In some ways, it’s a challenging time,” Weiner said. “It’s also a really ideal time. Whoever ends up going through the process and getting chosen, they get to put their stamp on (the restructured police department) and really play an enormous role in this process. ... I think it’s a great opportunity for someone to come and say, ‘Hey, I’ve always wanted to do this. I’ve always wanted to run a community-oriented police department.’”

Council member John Thomas said the community has been moving toward addressing some of the issues that police shouldn’t be dealing with in the first place. He points toward the Cross Park Place permanent housing development for chronically homeless individuals, as well as the GuideLink Center, which — when open — will help those suffering from mental crises or substance abuse issues.

Thomas said he thinks those initiatives would give a leg up to an internal chief candidate who is familiar with Iowa City’s neighborhoods, residents and existing community policing efforts.

“The more information you have on that, the more you can — from day one — begin implementing those policies,” he said.

When the resolution that included creating a plan to restructure the police department was unanimously approved by the council, Mayor Pro Tem Mazahir Salih called for modifying the qualifications of the chief candidates in the search process to match the values of the council.

While that proposal has not seemed to gain traction with her fellow council members, Salih said there are still ways to make sure the community has a say in the selection process.

During a meeting with Fruin, Salih said she called on him to ensure the chief interview committee — which Salih sat on when former Chief Matherly was selected — reflects the makeup of the community.

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“I just asked him to make sure this committee would come from a diverse group that looks like the community,” she said.

The hiring process outlined by Fruin includes “multiple interview panels involving internal and external stakeholders” that he will select. Those panelists will be made public after the interviews and debrief meetings have been completed.

Fruin also vowed that the recent resolution to restructure the department adopted by the council will “inform discussions we have with our applicants.”

“I must have full confidence that my appointment can effectively carry out the City Council’s directives while simultaneously supporting and empowering our staff to be part of the solution,” Fruin told The Gazette.

Mayor Bruce Teague said whoever is selected as chief will need to understand the challenges facing not only the community, but law enforcement as a whole. That person will have to be “open and dedicated to change,” Teague said.

“We want a change agent,” Teague said. “I believe it is an opportunity for the police chief to come and ensure the community is listened to ... and really move forward with the agenda for the collective good for our community.”

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

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