Public Safety

'Mountain' of work awaits new Iowa City police Chief Dustin Liston

Community must have voice in police reforms, he vows

Dustin Liston, incoming chief of the Iowa City Police Department, is photographed Thursday in Iowa City. Liston will beg
Dustin Liston, incoming chief of the Iowa City Police Department, is photographed Thursday in Iowa City. Liston will begin his new role after spending the last 22 years with the El Paso (Texas) Police Department. As part of the hiring process here, Liston was interviewed by a 15-member committee including representatives from the police department, Iowa City Pride, the NAACP, the Community Police Review Board and the ACLU Hawkeye Chapter. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — When she talks about the tasks awaiting new police Chief Dustin Liston, Iowa City Council member Janice Weiner doesn’t mince words.

“He’s got a huge mountain to climb right now,” she said.

Weiner said Liston, 45, previously a lieutenant with the El Paso, Texas, Police Department, has a wide variety of people and groups he should meet and begin to forge relationships with — including the Community Police Review Board, Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Black Voices Project, South District Neighborhood Assocation and the Iowa Freedom Riders, who have represented the Black Lives Matter Movement in Iowa City since this summer.

Liston joins the police department at a period of potentially historic change. In June, as the search for a new chief to replace retired Chief Jody Matherly was underway, the City Council vowed in a resolution to restructure the department toward community policing. City Manager Geoff Fruin last month unveiled a nearly 250-page plan with 36 recommendations.

The council still is weighing that plan and soliciting feedback, but change already is underway. Last Tuesday, the council agreed to commit $35,000 from the police budget annually to a Street Outreach and Engagement Specialist who will be employed by Shelter House. More changes are likely to come.

As that process unfolds, Liston said he’s ready to lend his voice, but also make sure the entire community is heard.

“I want to be engaged,” he said. “I want the members of our department, everyone to have a voice. I also want the community to have a voice.”

Liston joins the city Monday. As police chief, he’ll earn $150,009.60.

Echoing statements he made at a community meet-and-greet in August hosted by the city, Liston said the law enforcement community needs to do a better job of listening to citizens to better serve them better.

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“The more voices we can get to contribute to this plan, the better it will be,” Liston said.

Born in Pocahontas, Iowa, and raised in Eldora, Liston developed an interest in law enforcement early on. His great uncle, LeRoy Webber, spent 33 years with the Iowa State Patrol. The stories he told at family gatherings inspired both Liston and his older brother to become police officers.

Liston graduated in 1997 from the University of Iowa, where he interned with Iowa City police through a program in UI’s sociology department. He did ride-alongs, visited the jail and learned about other divisions within the department. Liston said he can recall being invited into officers’ homes during their lunch breaks.

“They treated me really well,” he said. “That left an impression.”

It was such an impression that Liston continued to follow Iowa City closely even as his career took him to Texas. So when Matherly announced his retirement, Liston spoke with his wife and applied.

“In the back of my head, it seemed like a far-fetched dream,” he recalled. “But I thought it’d be neat to come back.”

After the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody led to protests and demonstrations across the country, Liston said he reached out to Fruin to ensure there would be a police department to lead if he were hired. After speaking with the city manager, Liston said he remained encouraged.

“I looked at it as an opportunity to be part of some very beneficial changes,” he said. “I felt (the police department was) on pretty solid ground. That being said, we have to listen to the community. When the community insists on certain changes, we have to listen to that.”

Liston said he was given a draft of Fruin’s restructuring proposal, but he has not given any input of his own yet. Liston it needs to be clear to the public the changes are not coming from the police department itself.

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“If it was just a police department plan, I’m not sure everyone would give it much credibility,” he said.

Liston has had the opportunity to speak with the officers he’s about to lead. He emphasized the proposal is just that.

“I think it’s a great starting point,” he said. “I think there are a lot of things in there that are fantastic. There are a lot of things in the plan that the police department has already been doing.”

Fruin said he expects Liston to have a “significant role moving forward” as city officials weigh the plan. The city manager expects Liston will offer his own ideas and take input from inside and outside of the police department.

“Chief Liston accepted this job fully knowing this was on the horizon,” Fruin said. “One of the things that really attracted me to Chief Liston was his ability to see this as an opportunity. He truly sees this as an opportunity and wants to help lead the city as we move forward. That’s exciting for me and should be exciting for the City Council and the community.”

While he will listen to the community and gather as much input as possible, Liston said he wants to advocate for his officers as well.

“I do think the Iowa City Police Department has been doing a fantastic job,” he said. “Sometimes that’s just not highlighted enough. That will be my job as police chief to make sure when we do a good job, people will know about it. ... We need to make sure we highlight the good and certainly not ignore the bad.”

Liston’s other goals include recruiting a diverse staff that reflects the community and making sure he is building relationships within the community. He notes that El Paso is 70 to 80 percent Hispanic, as was the makeup of the police department. Liston said serving 22 years in a large, diverse community will serve him well, but he also emphasized the importance of being a native Iowan.

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“I grew up here,” he said. “I know the state well. I lived (in Iowa City) for four years. I’m not an outsider coming in.”

Weiner praised Liston’s approach to police reform as viewing it as an opportunity. She said he will need to be part of the conversation and be able to engage with people who agree with him and people who don’t.

“I think he will need to take a lead,” she said. “Not necessarily in formulating policy. He’ll need to get out and talk to the public ... I think he’s capable of doing that.”

That’s a task Liston said he’s up for.

“We need to engage in relationship building, especially in those parts of the community that don’t feel like they have a relationship with the police department,” he said. “Or if they do, it’s been an adversarial relationship. Without community support, the department will fail.”

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

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