Government

Iowa City's policing reform envisions less citizen contact with officers

Goal is for officers to hand off to beefed-up social services agencies

Lt. Dustin Liston of the El Paso, Texas, Police Department speaks during a meet and greet Aug. 24 with three finalists f
Lt. Dustin Liston of the El Paso, Texas, Police Department speaks during a meet and greet Aug. 24 with three finalists for the vacant Iowa City police chief job. The City Council later approved hiring him to lead a restructured police department. (Nick Rohlman/Freelance)

IOWA CITY — Limiting traffic stops, dispatching crisis counselors instead of police officers and slashing marijuana penalties are some of the ways the Iowa City Council wants to change policing.

A priority of a city police restructuring plan due Dec. 15 will be to hand over many of the department’s duties to civilian employees trained to deal with crises. The goal is to better address community needs and reduce disproportionate police contact with people of color.

“People want to connect those in crisis with a crisis professional that can best produce long-term outcomes for them,” City Manager Geoff Fruin said in a work session Tuesday. “Whenever possible, it’s not a law enforcement officer that has to solve that problem.”

City staff developing the draft plan are thinking about changes across four types of 911 calls:

• Preventive: Fruin said Iowa City should direct more money to nonprofits that provide mental health support and street outreach.

Several council members said they want to learn more about Cahoots, a 31-year-old program in Eugene, Ore., that provides first response for mental health, homelessness and addiction calls for service.

Iowa City also needs to educate residents on when a 911 call is needed. “You should not call the police when you see four Black individuals walking down the street,” Fruin said.

• Diversion: If residents do call 911, the city wants to divert those calls from police when possible. This might involve more education about the Mobile Crisis Action Program offered through CommUnity. Or it could be having non-sworn community service officers handle more calls.

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Mayor Bruce Teague said he supports 911 integration, a longer-term process of expanding the services offered by 911.

• Co-response: This is when police accompany a mobile crisis team or other service agency as support, Fruin said.

“We’re always going to have those situations where the initial call leaves enough ambiguity to lead the social services provider to say ‘I’m not exactly sure what this is. Please come with me,’” Fruin said. These plainclothes officers could spend extra time following up with people who had previous contacts with officers to see how they are doing, he said.

• Stabilization and handoff: There are 911 calls that involve violence or weapons that require police response, Fruin said. But when the situation is stabilized, police will learn to hand off the case to crisis managers or another provider.

Council member John Thomas said he’d like the city to abolish tickets for minor violations like having a defective taillight or jaywalking.

“The goal would be to limit the number of traffic stops to what is really essential,” such as drunken driving, he said.

Teague said that while Iowa City may not be able to decriminalize marijuana, some municipalities have dramatically reduced penalties. He cited a recent decision by Rock County, Wis. — He cited a recent decision by Rock County, Wis. — on the state’s southern border, home to Janesville and Beloit — to pass an ordinance setting a maximum $1 penalty for possessing 28 grams or less of marijuana — to pass an ordinance setting a maximum $1 penalty for possessing 28 grams or less of marijuana.

Earlier this month, the City Council approved filling its vacant police chief job with El Paso (Texas) Police Lt. Dustin Liston, who starts in January.

Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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