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Linn County sheriff to address police reform demands from Black Lives Matter group

Racial justice advocates so far have focused on city officials

Christopher D. Strums of Cedar Rapids leads a chant Saturday while marching along Bever Avenue SE in Cedar Rapids. (Andy
Christopher D. Strums of Cedar Rapids leads a chant Saturday while marching along Bever Avenue SE in Cedar Rapids. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker — who largely has focused the last few weeks on pressing Cedar Rapids officials to make police reforms in the city — said he will work with Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner on the same issues, and Gardner said Monday he soon will address demands being made by Walker and others.

Walker said there is a reason protesters and racial justice advocates needed to focus first on the city before bringing the same demands to the county level.

“That’s got to happen,” said Walker, one of three members of the Linn County Board of Supervisors. “But this movement was essentially started after George Floyd” — a black man in Minneapolis — “was murdered by municipal police officers.

“There aren’t a lot of black folks who live in the unincorporated rural areas of Linn County,” he said. “This movement we’re focused on is how we’re going to protect the lives of black people in this country who interact with police officers,” he added. “Law enforcement at large needs a complete overall, but the crisis we’re facing right now is how black Americans are brutalized by the police.”

Last week, Walker and members of a Black Lives Matter group called Advocates for Social Justice met with Cedar Rapids city officials to start negotiations on a list of seven issues.

Friday, Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman announced he and Mayor Brad Hart were dedicated to creating a citizen’s review board of police, but details of the panel’s makeup and oversight powers are yet to be determined.

Besides patrolling unincorporated areas of the county including major thoroughfares, the sheriff’s office provides patrol services to 12 towns and operates the Linn County Correctional Facility.

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Before the coronavirus hit Iowa in March, Walker and Gardner were working with a committee, including representatives from the Linn County Attorney’s Office, to create changes in how law enforcement interacts with the public.

One of the proposals was to divert people in possession of “user quantities” of marijuana away from the criminal justice system, Gardner said.

Someone with a first offense minor marijuana possession would have the chance to participate in a treatment program and “pseudo-probation,” Gardner said. The offender would avoid jail time and it would be kept off any record.

Decriminalizing minor marijuana crimes is one of the demands being made by the Advocates For Social Justice.

The Iowa Legislature, which ended its 2020 session Sunday, did pass a police reform measure but did not advance a bill to eliminate criminal penalties for possessing marijuana.

Other demands from the group include creating a citizens’ review board, banning chokeholds and knee-to-neck maneuvers, strengthening the use of force standards and abolishing qualified immunity.

Gardner said he is not opposed to forming a citizens’ review board for the sheriff’s office, but wants to do more research first.

“I know there are agencies that have implemented that and haven’t been productive,” Gardner said. “Even Iowa City, who has had a long-standing citizens’ review board, the citizens on that board aren’t terribly happy with the process.”

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Supervisor Ben Rogers said he is in favor of the sheriff’s office and County Attorney’s Office meeting the seven demands for police reform.

“However I can help using my position, I’ll do it to the fullest extent,” Rogers said.

Rogers said he would like to see more money diverted to human and social services such as mental health and substance abuse programs — “services people really need instead of interacting with law enforcement.”

Supervisor Brent Oleson noted that the Cedar Rapids and Linn County law enforcement agencies are structured differently. At the city level, the police chief reports to the city manager. At the county level, the sheriff is an elected official who does not report to the supervisors outside of planning the budget, he said.

“Sheriff Gardner is constantly looking to better his force, his units, his people. They do a ton of training,” Oleson said, adding that he has “every confidence” that Gardner is ahead of the curve on police reforms.

Comments: (319) 398-8411; grace.king@thegazette.com

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