Public Safety

George Floyd's cousin, a Cedar Rapids native, is praising police reform efforts in Johnson County

She cites countywide agreement of a duty to intercede, collaboration with Iowa City NAACP

Paris Stevens, a nurse in Charlotte, N.C., is a Cedar Rapids native and first cousin to George Floyd, who was killed by
Paris Stevens, a nurse in Charlotte, N.C., is a Cedar Rapids native and first cousin to George Floyd, who was killed by Minneapolis police on May 25 during an arrest. (Supplied photo)

IOWA CITY — Collaboration between the Iowa City chapter of the NAACP and local law enforcement leaders and efforts at police reforms born out of that work has caught the attention of George Floyd’s family.

Paris Stevens, 44, is a nurse in Charlotte, N.C. She’s also a Cedar Rapids native and first cousin to Floyd, who was killed by Minneapolis police on May 25 during an arrest.

Stevens said she learned about a June 19 meeting between local, state and federal law enforcement leaders and representatives from the NAACP in University Heights. During the meeting, the law enforcement leaders agreed to adopt a countywide policy requiring all Johnson County deputies and police officers to intervene in instances of excessive force by other officers.

Stevens said she and her family were so pleased by the collaboration she asked to address the group during a July 1 Zoom meeting. Stevens said she praised the duty-to-intercede agreement.

“Each officer is going to be held accountable if they stand by and watch their counterparts do the wrong thing,” Stevens said in an interview with The Gazette. “If people in the community see that and it’s actually happening, they’ll have more respect for those in uniform. It’ll put them on a level playing field. They’ll see that people in uniform will be penalized if they do the wrong thing.”

Stevens said she learned about the local efforts from Kevin Sanders, president of the Iowa City Chapter of the NAACP. Sanders and Stevens have known each other for years and, after Floyd’s death, Stevens reached out to him. Sanders has worked with law enforcement since relaunching the Iowa City NAACP chapter nearly three years ago, collaborating on hate crime forums and training and helping University Heights establish its anti-racial bias ordinance.

After speaking with Stevens, Sanders said he wanted to do more.

“I felt compelled to really push for change by working with law enforcement,” he said.

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Sanders worked with law enforcement to convene the June 19 meeting that was also attended by Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness, representatives from the FBI, Iowa Police Chiefs Assocation, U.S. Attorney General’s Office and other NAACP members, including Betty Andrews, president of Iowa-Nebraska NAACP State Conference of Branches. After that meeting, Sanders sent Stevens and her family notes about what had transpired.

“The family was impressed because of one, the ability to coordinate a meeting with all the heads of law enforcement in the county ... in such a short time, considering the crisis,” Sanders said. “It was also very impressive to coordinate a meeting like that in such a short time to yield those sort of results.”

Stevens said she was grateful for the efforts in Johnson County and hopes to see them replicated elsewhere. She delivered that message during the July 1 meeting.

“I wanted to thank them for moving forward and committing to change in their community,” she said. “I’m hoping they’ll be able to spread it to the state of Iowa.”

Sanders said the commitment to change didn’t stop with those first two meetings. In the weeks since, he’s spoken with every law enforcement leader in the county on multiple occasions about topics ranging from hiring practices to establishing citizen review boards similar to the one being created in University Heights. He praised the local leaders who are committed to change.

“They’re leading right now,” he said. “I feel like they’re really setting a precedent in Johnson County for the state.”

Andrews agrees. Her nephew, Manuel Ellis, died in police custody in Tacoma, Wash., in March, so she can empathize with what Stevens and her family are experiencing now.

Washington state authorities are investigating the March 3 death of Ellis, which the medical examiner there ruled a homicide. Like Floyd, Ellis cried out during his arrest that “I can’t breathe.” A family attorney told the News-Tribune in Tacoma that officers had shocked Ellis several times with a Taser and wrapped their arms around his neck.

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Floyd was killed as a Minneapolis officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Other officers at the scene did not intervene despite Floyd’s pleas, according to a video and witnesses.

“When I think about the family of George Floyd reaching out and having some sense of what they have been feeling during this tragic time, it’s powerful,” Andrews said. “It’s a powerful testament to the work our NAACP is doing. It’s a powerful nod to the direction law enforcement is trying to take.”

And it’s an endorsement that law enforcement isn’t taking lightly.

University Heights Police Chief Troy Kelsay admits that in the days and weeks after Floyd’s killing, it was disheartening to see the efforts that local law enforcement agencies had taken in recent years being ignored. Kelsay said he questioned if the three decades he spent in law enforcement were worth it until Stevens addressed the group.

“She made me feel better about being a police officer,” he said. “She made me feel like it wasn’t all for naught.”

Coralville Police Chief Shane Kron said Stevens’ comments are an example of someone starting a conversation and making an effort toward working together.

“I think that’s important,” he said. “We also have to acknowledge we have work to do. ... Johnson County law enforcement is not trying to say there are not things that need to be done. There are realities. But, before we’re Black and white, we’re people. I think that was kind of the message. We’re not on sides here. We’re in this together as a society, as a community. We’ve got work to do.”

Detective Sgt. Brad Kunkel said he was moved by Stevens’ comments and shares his colleagues hopes of moving forward together to create meaningful change.

“It gives me hope that a path to healing and better relations is tangible,” he said. “Obviously, it’s a long road. We have work to do. It shows me to stay optimistic about where we can go.”

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Stevens said the weeks since her cousin’s death have been marked by struggles, but also triumphs. She said the conversations in Johnson County and the changes to come out of those conversations are undoubtedly a triumph.

“His death is not in vain,” she said. “We know things are going to change. It’s going to take time. ... I want to keep this going.”

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

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