CEDAR RAPIDS — Anne Harris Carter says she has abandoned the caution that came with her optimism in 2020.
A board member of Advocates for Social Justice, the group that pressed the city on seven demands for police reform including the creation of a citizens’ police review board, Harris Carter said she was optimistic as the ordinance creating the panel nears adoption. The City Council unanimously advanced the measure Tuesday, taking the first of three votes required to enact the ordinance.
“I am optimistic, even though I know there are many hurdles ahead,” she told the council. “I am optimistic, even though I know there are those in this community who think this ordinance does not go far enough. I am optimistic, even though I know there are those in this community that doubt the existence of systemic racism. I am optimistic, even though I know there are those in this community that doubt the merits of civilian oversight, and at the other end of the spectrum, flat out disagree.”
The ordinance outlines the structure of the panel and the scope of its powers. Members would be able to review data to identify trends and recommend policy changes, serve on a committee that selects a police chief and review complaints from residents against the police department.
Residents would file complaints online or in-person in an effort to remove barriers to addressing concerns, Community Development Director Jennifer Pratt said. Board members would be notified of all complaints and receive a report from the police chief with the results of a professional standards investigation.
This report would show findings and evidence, including access to body camera footage that would not contain identifying information of witnesses, victims or officers, Pratt said.
Council members lauded the measure as a milestone that took a commitment from those involved to have tough conversations and remain at the table.
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“Forming a citizens review board is really a progressive step that will, I’m confident, help build even more trust in our police department and that will help prevent and solve crimes, benefits us all,” Mayor Brad Hart said.
Trust — particularly between a police department and residents — is both tough to measure and to work on improving, council member Tyler Olson said. But it’s something the department and chief have committed to make progress on, he said.
While he added that “I don’t think by any means anybody is under the illusion that this solves the problem of systemic racism in our community,” Olson said this step and others such as hiring a city diversity, equity and inclusion manager will move the needle.
Council member Ashley Vanorny, who sits on the Public Safety and Youth Services committee, said she received calls from residents who began to confront their own participation in racism as the city staff and community advocates collaborated on creating the review board.
The city, too, needs to regularly review its processes to ensure programs have the impact intended, Vanorny said.
“We really have to intentionally take that time and dedication to study historical institutions and to listen and raise up those in our community who don’t look like us and who don’t live like us,” Vanorny said. “That’s the only way that we’re going to even begin to understand.”
While Harris Carter has said she appreciated the collaboration with city staff, she added that “personally, I long for our elected officials and other stakeholders to lend their voice, not just to the recorded discussion, but as a matter of course in everyday interaction. And further, it is the hope of ASJ that a champion will step forward from this City Council to help ensure the strongest CRB possible over the years.”
The advocates in July said the city seeking public engagement rather than forming a task force to create the panel was a bureaucratic way to slow progress and quiet leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement.
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Before city staff and the advocates began their collaborative approach on forming the board and soliciting public input through an online survey and focus groups, the advocates had been meeting with some council members and city officials. Those talks lasted until Hart and others announced they did not plan to continue them.
Council member Dale Todd, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, said that “leadership on this issue is, for those of us on the council, it was tough but leadership meant not getting involved in the process and letting the process work without us at the table.”
He said it was crucial to let city staff conduct research, engage the police department and understand the varied models of review boards across the nation.
“A comment was made earlier about looking for a champion on the City Council,” Todd said. “I would say to that comment that you’ve got nine champions on the City Council, including the city manager and the police chief who have been behind this from the outset, and simply wanted to make sure that we had the best model that we could have in place for a community like Cedar Rapids. And today, I think we do.”
From here, the council will take either separate or combined second and third votes to pass the ordinance at one of its February meetings. In the spring, city staff will solicit applications for the board, which will consist of nine members — a majority people of color — appointed by the mayor with council input.
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