Government

Racial profiling ban still work in progress in University Heights

Over a year has passed since tiny city said it would enact reforms

A University Heights squad car. (Gazette file photo)
A University Heights squad car. (Gazette file photo)
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UNIVERSITY HEIGHTS — More than a year has passed since University Heights adopted what was thought to be the first racial profiling ban in Iowa, but citizens still do not have the means to file a complaint against police should an issue arise.

Nonetheless, community leaders in the small Johnson County enclave say they’ve made progress rolling out the ordinance, which they say remains a priority.

“It’s not as if it’s stalled or paused,” said City Council member Sara O’Sullivan, chair of the Community Protection committee, whose first term began this year. “Some of the actions maybe haven’t happened in the time frame that was desired initially. It’s not for a lack of buy-in. I don’t see any road blocks being thrown up.”

Enacted in February 2019, the ordinance prohibits the use of “explicit or implicit” biases by University Heights police officers, calls for a Community Advisory Board to resolve complaints and review enforcement data annually, requires the collection of data for each police interaction with the public and also mandates officers receive implicit bias training.

Members of the Community Advisory Board were selected by the council by the end of 2019. The five-member board consists of three University Heights residents — Jessica Bowes, Dorothy Maher and Alejandro Pezzulo Colmenares. The ordinance requires one member associated with the NAACP. David Jackson, an adjunct assistant professor in the University of Iowa’s African American Studies Program, was put forth by the local chapter of the NAACP. The board also is required to have one member with law enforcement experience, which is filled by retired Coralville police Officer Doug Vance, who currently is director of safety and security at UI Hospitals and Clinics.

University Heights Police Chief Troy Kelsay said the board was set to have its inaugural meeting March 18. That meeting — which would have been attended by Kelsay, O’Sullivan, Iowa City NAACP President Kevin Sullivan and Iowa-Nebraska NAACP President Betty Andrews — would have established a citizen complaint process. But that meeting never took place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Things were just too crazy,” Kelsay said.

Kelsay, who served a lengthy career with the Iowa City Police Department before retiring as captain and later joining University Heights as chief in April 2019, said he plans to provide University Heights’ board with his perspectives on interacting with Iowa City’s Community Police Review Board.

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Established in 1997, Iowa City’s panel was the first of its kind in the state. Black Lives Matter protesters in Iowa City have called for the board to be given more authority and Iowa City Mayor Pro Tem Mazahir Salih, a former member, has called it “powerless.”

Kelsay said University Heights’ review board will be more narrowly focused than Iowa City’s, but he’d like to see it be more transparent and give board members a bigger role in the complaint process.

“I think the board should be much more involved in the process than the community review board in Iowa City,” he said. “I think there’s some frustration there.”

Kelsay envisions a complaint process in which he collects all written and video information related to an incident and presents it directly to the review board. Kelsay would be able to answer the board’s questions immediately and potentially resolve the complaint right away. If the incident is unclear, Kelsay can follow up at the direction of the board.

“They can direct me,” Kelsay said. “That is going to be my pitch.”

Some aspects of the ordinance are in place. Kelsay said University Heights officers are collecting data on their interactions with the public. That data will be reviewed by Chris Barnum, the St. Ambrose University criminal justice professor who also is analyzing Iowa City police data as part of an ongoing study of disproportionate minority contact in traffic stops.

Barnum is analyzing University Heights’ data at no cost, though Kelsay said he anticipates paying a fee to the professor when he presents his findings to the council.

University Heights officers have yet to receive implicit bias training beyond joint annual training done by area officers countywide. Kelsay said Sanders with the NAACP is envisioning training for officers to familiarize them with Black history and how it feels to be a Black person interacting with law enforcement. That training could take the form of sending officers to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

The goal is “for there to be a greater appreciation and understanding,” Kelsay said.

“Not just that people feel that way, but why do they feel that way,” he said.

With coronavirus mitigation restrictions loosening in the state, Kelsay said he’s hopeful the review board can have its inaugural meeting some time in July.

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“I know there’s interest in the community,” he said. “I think some feel this particular council is less committed to that. That is not the case. That is not the case at all.”

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

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