Guest Columnist

County attorney: Reprehensible editorial played 'race card' against Iowa police

Linn County prosecutor responds to The Gazette editorial board

Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden in Linn County District Court on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gaze
Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden in Linn County District Court on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

The recent Gazette staff editorial (“A sickening top-5 ranking for Iowa”) was a reprehensible attack on our police and a shameful play of the race card. Citing a report by the American Civil Liberties Union showing black Iowans were more likely than white Iowans to be arrested for marijuana possession and “to be behind bars”, the editorial asserted that the police and Iowa’s legal system unfairly targets black people.

However, you can’t always draw sound conclusions by citing statistics. Bare numbers don’t tell the whole story and there are other factors that account for racial disparities in the justice system.

Linn County is one of several jurisdictions in Iowa dealing with a serious gun violence problem. Many of these crimes occur in poor neighborhoods and the victims are often black. Police concentrate their efforts in these “hot-spot” areas in an effort to combat the violence and get guns off the street.

It stands to reason that officers will patrol, stop and frisk and make arrests in the areas where violent crime is reported and the complaints are made. It’s not like the police are meandering about the city looking to arrest a certain segment of the population for marijuana charges. When they find marijuana, an arrest is made regardless of the race of the offender.

By the way, a recent list of defendants in the Linn County jail showed 229 people being held. The number of people being held for marijuana possession: 0.

To be sure, blacks are overrepresented in Iowa’s prisons. They make up about 3.4 percent of Iowa’s population while accounting for roughly 25 percent of prison inmates. But do these figures prove the police and the criminal justice system are to blame for the racial imbalance in our prison population? The fallacy in such an argument can be seen when comparing it to a far bigger disparity in our prison population; that is, the gender disparity.

There are nine prisons in Iowa; eight for men and one for women. Of the roughly 8,500 inmates in these prisons, about 91 percent are men, 9 percent are women. These figures represent an astonishing gender imbalance in our prison system. Does that statistical inequality mean that our justice system is rigged against men while giving women a free pass?

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No sensible person would cite the gender disparity in our prison population to argue that the criminal justice system is sexist and unfairly targets men. We accept the proposition that men commit crimes at a disproportionate rate relative to their segment of the population. The fact of the matter is that the people in prison are the ones who are committing the crimes.

When the ACLU and other anti-police groups rant about disparities in the justice system, they tend to ignore the most troubling inequity in our justice system; that is, the racial disparity in crime victimization.

Although black men make up about 6 percent of our population, they account for nearly half of America’s homicide victims. A Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) study of homicides from 1980 to 2008 found that the victimization rate of blacks was six times that of whites. This alarming inequity is seldom addressed by those bent on leveling charges of racism against the police and the justice system.

The inordinate number of black lives lost to gun violence is tragic and is deserving of a strong police response. Those who live in high crime areas, understandable weary of gun violence, are asking for more policing, not less. Our local law enforcement agencies dedicate themselves to putting an end to the violence and senseless loss of life.

Our peace officers are not racists and it was irresponsible for the Gazette to suggest otherwise. It is a worthy endeavor to examine the root causes of crime and to search for solutions. But in the process, let’s not unfairly disparage the integrity of the men and women in blue who risk their lives to serve and protect us.

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