Public Safety

New Iowa City police policy de-emphasizes minor violations

City studying disproportionate minority contact in traffic stops

An Iowa City squad car. (file photo)
An Iowa City squad car. (file photo)

IOWA CITY — Iowa City police will no longer make traffic stops based solely on infractions like cracked windshields and broken taillights unless there’s a safety issue.

Under the new policy unveiled to the department last month by Interim Chief Denise Brotherton, officers will have a “reduced interest” in secondary traffic violations as well as pedestrian and regulatory violations. These include cracked windshields, loud exhaust, inoperable license plate lamps, cracked taillights, dangling ornaments and “window treatments.”

Additionally, pedestrian infractions that impact traffic safety like jaywalking will not be the sole basis for stops.

Brotherton said the policy change is in response to concerns from the community and the City Council about disproportionately high minority contact in traffic stops and arrests.

Brotherton said in her order that policing research shows general traffic enforcement impacts minorities disproportionately and can have disparate outcomes. The police department has been studying disproportionate minority contact in traffic stops with the help of a St. Ambrose University professor for years.

“Historical data has indicated that minority drivers are more likely to be stopped than nonminority drivers,” Brotherton wrote. “While citation outcomes resulting from stops do not currently indicate disparity, minority drivers continue to be arrested at a higher rate compared to nonminority drivers.”

The order is not an outright ban on making stops based on secondary violations. Brotherton said officers can use their discretion to make stops for those violations, but they’ll have to explain to a supervisor why that stop was made.

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Using cracked windshields as an example, Brotherton said an officer could still make a stop for that violation if the crack was so bad it obstructed the driver’s view and made driving the vehicle unsafe.

“We have to make that stop because it’s obviously not safe,” Brotherton said. “(The officer) needs to articulate that.”

Officers could similarly make a stop for jaywalking if the pedestrian was doing something obviously unsafe, like walking through the middle of rush-hour traffic, Brotherton said.

“If it’s 4 in the morning and there’s no traffic around, then what’s your public safety reason for stopping them?” she asked.

Secondary violations also can be addressed when traffic stops are made for primary violations, such as failure to wear seat belts, having inoperable headlights after dark, speeding or reckless driving.

But even in those instances, officers are ordered to address the secondary violation through issuing a warning or providing a voucher for a free repair under the Building Unity Linking Businesses for Safety program. The B.U.L.B.S. program — launched in the city by Brotherton — gives vouchers to drivers in need whose vehicle lights have gone out.

In a memo to the City Council on the new policy, City Manager Geoff Fruin said minor traffic stops erode the trust between police and the people they serve and “may be counterproductive to building meaningful community policing relationships that facilitate more impactful positive outcomes for the greater community.”

The city has been responding to demands from the Black Lives Matter movement to address policing in the city.

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“The Iowa City Police Department is committed to fair, unbiased policing and will continue to listen to the community, examine policies and evolve our practices in order to meet the expectations of the city we proudly serve,” Fruin wrote.

The impact of the new guidelines will be reviewed after 60 days, Brotherton said. Police will look, among other things, at whether crash rates go up and drunken driving arrests go down under the policy.

“It’s ultimately about public safety,” Brotherton said. “If we can have this policy and it doesn’t affect public safety, then it’s a good policy to have in place. If we start seeing fatality crashes and issues like cars wrapped around trees and pedestrian collisions, then we’ll need to readdress.”

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

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