Public Safety

University Heights Police Chief discusses city's racial profiling ordinance

University Heights Police Chief Nate Petersen
University Heights Police Chief Nate Petersen

This month, University Heights became what is thought to be the first city in Iowa to pass an ordinance barring the use of racial profiling in police practices.

The ordinance, which passed unanimously Feb. 13, prohibits the use of “explicit or implicit biases,” especially in relation to profiling or discriminatory police practices. It also requires the collection of demographic information — such as race, gender and age of the person, as well as the reason for the contact — for each contact officers have with the public and establishes a citizen advisory board to resolve complaints against officers and annually review police data. Additionally, the city opted to hire an independent expert to review and analyze the data.

City Council member Silvia Quezada said the ordinance seeks to take a pre-emptive stand “to ensure the University Heights community is welcoming and respectful of all people and that we are doing all we can to eliminate bias from our police practices.”

Last week, University Heights Police Chief Nate Petersen talked about the ordinance and its potential impact.

Q: What are your thoughts on the city’s new racial profiling ordinance?

A: I’ve been involved with the development of the ordinance pretty much from the beginning. And actually, before the ordinance was even thought of, I had reached out to Kevin Sanders at the local NAACP office and we had some meetings and talked about some of the training he was doing with the University of Iowa police and the Iowa City police. I wanted us to get on board and be a part of those trainings, so we were talking about how we could make that happen. We also talked about creating better policies to help law enforcement work more smoothly with the community so that when they call or when we make a stop, citizens are getting the same level of service regardless of the color of their skin or their gender.

Q: What does the passing of an ordinance like this mean for the police department?

A: As far as day-to-day duties, the only real change our officers are going to notice is the extra form that they have to fill out on their computer when they respond to a call for service or conduct a traffic stop, or have some other interaction with the public. It will just be an extra button that they’ll have to click in order to fill out the demographic information that the ordinance requires. We will be using the same software and policies that the Iowa City Police Department developed a couple years ago to track their contacts with the public. So, our officers are going to notice a slight difference in their day-to-day operations, but it’s not going to be burdensome or something that will be noticeable to the public.

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Q: There are many parts to this ordinance. What do you plan to focus on implementing first?

A: I’d like to see the data collection get up and running first. I had set a personal deadline of March 1, but of course that all depends on the software company and how quickly they are able to get these updates installed. And I have already been discussing the implicit bias training aspect with Kevin Sanders, so I suspect those plans will come together fairly quickly.

Q: Have your officers already received any sort of implicit bias training?

A: Yes. Last fall our officers attended implicit bias training that had been organized by the NAACP and included ICPD and UI police and members of the public. The training focused on recognizing that we all have implicit biases, and because they are implicit, we might not always recognize their influences, and developing that awareness of how those biases can impact our thinking. And that training is something I wanted to continue to do, and now with this ordinance, we will be developing different projects and things with the NAACP to continue exposing our officers to possible biases, as well as different cultures, perspectives and points of view.

Q: Why do you think an ordinance like this one is important?

A: Well, we are a fairly transitional department, meaning we’ve seen a lot of turnover including at the chief’s level. And it can be harder for a department to establish relationships and trust within the community when the public is constantly seeing new faces. Having an ordinance like this makes it clear that these are the policies and protocols under which this police department will operate regardless of who is wearing the badge.

l Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

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