Guest Columnist

Inequity and injustice in Eastern Iowa's drug enforcement

A cell pod at the Iowa County Jail in Marengo, Iowa on Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
A cell pod at the Iowa County Jail in Marengo, Iowa on Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

A recent opinion article by an elected official in Linn County (“County attorney: Reprehensible editorial played ‘race card’ against Iowa police”) is a disturbing reminder of how out of touch we truly are. As a health director and community leader, I wish to provide fact-based perspective on the issues discussed in the article.

My daughters used to talk to me about America’s sordid past regarding racial injustices. “There is almost no parallel to the American system of slavery in human history,” they would tell me. Both of my daughters, native of Iowa, grew up in Nashville, Tennessee. I, on the other hand, grew up in northern India. I witnessed a caste system, systematic discrimination based on the family in which someone is born. They witnessed racism and heard stories of slavery, Jim Crow, black codes, sundown towns, racial covenants and sharecropping — all of which is unparalleled in recorded human history.

Also unparalleled is this op-ed, which insensitively disputes facts reported by The Gazette’s editors.

The article conveniently disregards data obtained from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), that clearly illustrate the very real racial disparities in the American criminal justice system that have resulted in the disproportionate representation of African American men in our prison systems, yet the author has no qualms when invoking such figures in order to reinforce the narrative that African Americans commit more gun-related offenses and experience greater rates of homicide and victimization in their communities.

This misconception serves to perpetuate the mythology that African Americans are more violent and that “black on black crime” is a pervasive sociocultural issue. Both of these falsehoods serve to reinforce negative stereotypes and ideologies about African Americans and misrepresents their involvement in criminal activity, which has resulted in a prejudicial system of mass incarceration and discriminatory policing in African American communities.

The op-ed attempts to attribute heightened police activity in these areas to the identification of “hot spots,” which the author claims warrant increased law enforcement surveillance due to the higher prevalence of specific criminal activity in these areas. Yet he has not advocated for exacting a similar level of vigilance in other communities with an equal or higher prevalence of harmful or illegal activity (i.e. drug usage or overdoses). Statistically, white men overdose at a proportionately higher rate than any other demographic. Therefore, this line of logic should recommend that these areas also qualify as “hot spots,” where increased police presence may be warranted.

The idea that “black on black” violence is a rampant issue in the African American community is reductive and problematic, particularly when used to justify hyper vigilance in these areas. Referring to this stereotype as a pervasive sociocultural problem illustrates a larger issue involving a severe lack of understanding and empathy from our community leaders and representatives. The data regarding other forms of violence (i.e. assault, theft, illegal gun possession, etc.) suggest that white peers commit other forms of violence at higher rates compared to other populations. Why then, is similar scrutiny not extended to these populations?

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Our police departments are committed to investigating crime, reducing violence and protecting our community members. However, inaccurate analyses of violent crime problems often result in problematic and unequal policing practices, including hyper surveillance, increased police presence, and policies such as “stop and frisk,” which data has shown not only disproportionately affects people of color, but does not actually serve to prevent the incidence of violent crime. Data from the New York Police Department and the New York Civil Liberties Union consistently indicate that black and Latino males are disproportionately targeted, frisked and met with force compared to their white counterparts, even though the latter was twice as likely to be found with a gun, according to an article from the New York Times in February.

The assertion that there is somehow an equivalency between the discourse regarding gender representation in Iowa prisons and racial and ethnic disparities in said prisons is not only spurious, but laughable. Theoretical debates aside, both national and state-specific data consistently indicate that men commit more criminal acts than women and are therefore much more likely to be incarcerated. Likening the differences in gender and racial representation in Iowa’s prison system is not only reductive, but trivializes the historical legacy of racial discrimination against African Americans in the American criminal justice system.

The article is correct about one thing: bare numbers indeed do not tell the entire story. However, when statistics are used to justify hyper policing of certain populations that is not correspondingly exacted on other populations that also suffer from pathologies that merit intervention, it is inequitable and unjust. If facts and figures drive policymaking, then facts and figures should be equitably invoked to inform legislation, criminal justice practices and policing protocol instead of to reinforce harmful stereotypical ideologies in our society. We must do better.

Pramod Dwivedi, MS, DrPH (c), is the health director of Linn County Public Health. Follow him on twitter: @pdwivedi9.

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