Public Safety

Iowa City arrests drop for fifth straight year

Overall crime is down, but violent crime is up slightly, latest statistics show

Iowa City police chief Jody Matherly talks during a news conference at City Hall in Iowa City on Monday, Nov. 20, 2017. (Gazette photo)
Iowa City police chief Jody Matherly talks during a news conference at City Hall in Iowa City on Monday, Nov. 20, 2017. (Gazette photo)

IOWA CITY — In 2018, the Iowa City Police Department adopted a new mission statement that included a commitment to “excellence in service.”

Iowa City Police Chief Jody Matherly liked the new mission statement so much that he put it on posters around the station and had “excellence in service” emblazoned on the side of police department vehicles.

“We’re very proud of that mission statement,” Matherly said this week. “We’re so proud, we put it on the cars.”

The police department in 2018 also saw the number of arrests drop for the fifth straight year. While a number of factors can influence crime trends, Matherly said he hopes the decrease in arrests is a reflection on the department’s commitment to excellence in service — specifically adopting creative and community-oriented means of responding to crime beyond just making arrests.

According to the department’s annual report, there were 4,482 arrests in 2018, down from 4,747 in 2017. In 2013, there were 6,383 citywide. Matherly points to public intoxication and disorderly conduct charges as a factor. There were 437 public intoxication charges in 2018, a decrease of nearly 500 from 927 in 2013. Officers wrote 123 disorderly conduct charges in 2018. While that’s up from 120 charges in 2017, it’s down from the 199 disorderly conduct charges in 2013.

Many of those charges result from interacting with people who are intoxicated, homeless or in a crisis situation, Matherly said. Police previously didn’t have many options outside of taking people to a hospital or jail, but thanks to crisis intervention training and the efforts made through the department’s data-driven justice grant — which seeks to break the cycle of jail, hospital and homelessness for individuals in the city — officers now have solutions beyond making an arrest, Matherly said.

“My hope is because we’re becoming more vigilant we can identify the source of the problem and not just deal with the act itself and the aftermath,” he said. “My hope is that’s why those trends are going down.”

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While not necessarily reflected in arrest numbers, the city also saw decreases from 2017 to 2018 in reported incidents of thefts, breaking and entering, and simple assaults. Overall, reported crime was down 8.5 percent in the city last year.

However, among those offenses, the police department responded to a 9.1 percent increase in violent crime over the same period. That was driven almost exclusively by an increase in reported aggravated assaults, which climbed from 86 in 2017 to 119 in 2018. There were also small increases in reported sexual assaults and forced sodomy.

“It fluctuates from year to year,” Matherly said. “That trend is sometimes hard to control. We always want to see it go down.”

There were no homicides in 2018 after the department responded to four in 2017, and robberies also decreased.

Matherly said the department uses different methods of responding to minor crimes so they don’t always result in an arrest. The police department has partnered with the University of Iowa Department of Public Safety on the Students Helping Out — or SHOUT — program, which has student ambassadors respond to minor infractions downtown and help get people home safely. The department has also shifted away from the broken windows theory — which emphasizes making arrests for minor infractions — in favor of using data to focus on violent offenders, rather than entire neighborhoods.

“I think we’ve done a better job at saying, ‘This is a small violation. Is it really important that I cite the person or can I find another method to discourage them from violating the law again?’” Matherly said. “Sometimes that means giving them that warning or directing them toward social services ... instead of just something punitive.”

Looking at juveniles, police saw juvenile calls for service climb to 595 in 2018, up from 573 the year before. However, charges and referrals to Juvenile Court dropped from 259 to 227 during that same time period.

Matherly said he believes officers are being more patient, getting parents and guardians involved and looking for solutions to keep juveniles out of the court system. He pointed to an issue last summer involving kids causing problems at the Iowa City Public Library. Matherly said the juveniles, parents, library staff and other people were brought together to discuss the issue.

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“I think taking that approach and making sure everybody is patient and making sure we have a good response plan keeps kids out of court,” Matherly said. “That’s our goal.”

In 2019, Matherly said there will be a continued emphasis on data-driven justice, determining how to most efficiently deploy officers, community outreach and putting an emphasis on identifying and arresting violent offenders.

“We want to make sure everybody is safe,” he said. “I think folks should feel good about that.”

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

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