Public Safety

Iowa City chief proposes closing police substation on south side

The Iowa City Police substation at Pepperwood Plaza in Iowa City on Monday, May 9, 2016. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
The Iowa City Police substation at Pepperwood Plaza in Iowa City on Monday, May 9, 2016. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Iowa City Police Chief Jody Matherly is proposing the police department close its substation, which opened nearly nine years ago.

Matherly said he is often asked why a substation is needed in the southern district of Iowa City, but not in the west, north or east neighborhoods.

“It’s a valid question,” Matherly said Friday. “And the answer is, at the time, it served a great purpose. And, if we could put more resources into it and make it more full service, it may serve a different purpose. But right now, it’s a store front only.”

Matherly said the substation — at 1067 Highway 6 East in the Pepperwood Plaza — represents a policing style that was once widely used and heavily promoted but is no longer viewed as best practice. Additionally, the presence of a police substation in one neighborhood creates a perception about safety and crime in that neighborhood, he said.

“If you live in that area, it’s not the reputation you want to have,” Matherly said.

For years, crimes and negative perceptions about safety plagued several of the neighborhoods south of Highway 6 in Iowa City. In a memo to the Iowa City Council, Matherly said those issues “reached a breaking point,” in 2009. That year, police investigated the shooting death of John Versypt at the Broadway Condominiums, a large fight on Mother’s Day, and an increase in shootings, drug dealing and juvenile crime. In addition to implementing a new curfew law and other neighborhood revitalization efforts, the police department brought back its Crime Prevention Unit.

Matherly said the police department — along with law enforcement agencies throughout the country — used at that time the “broken windows” theory of police work. The idea was to police small, quality-of-life offenses to prevent violent crime.

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“At the time, that was not just acceptable, it was encouraged as a policing strategy,” Matherly said.

But, these days, it has been found that broken windows policing didn’t prevent violent crime and had a disproportionate effect on minorities. Matherly said policing by neighborhoods isn’t effective.

“You police by neighborhoods, there’s collateral damage,” he said. “You’re arresting folks that don’ really need to be arrested. And now their family members, their co-workers and their neighbors are upset at us because of that.”

Now, police are working more to build partnerships in the community, create trust and identify violent offenders and their networks, rather than just focus on entire neighborhoods.

“There’s a bad effect that comes with policing by neighborhood,” Matherly said. “That police substation kind of stands — perception-wise — for that. We want to pull away from that.”

Matherly said he has being weighing the efficiency of the substation since he joined the police department as chief in January 2017. What he’s found is that — aside from a meeting place — the substation has a limited purpose since citizens cannot go there for other police department functions such as requesting a report or getting a car out of impound.

Members of the South District Neighborhood also reached out to Matherly to talk about potentially rebranding the substation to address some of those perception concerns.

“And that jump-started discussions on defining that space and what it looks like,” he said.

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The city rents the substation location for free from Parkview Church and pays about $10,250 a year for maintenance and other expenses.

Simon Andrew, assistant to the city manager, said the city manager’s office will ask the City Council to weigh in on Matherly’s proposal during the council’s May 21 work session. Any move will not require a formal vote.

“We just want to make sure council is on board with that recommendation before we move forward with it,” Andrew said.

l Comments: (319) 398-8238; lee.hermiston@thegazette.com

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