Guest Columnist

Iowa poets: Cedar Rapids needs a police review board

It's a proven, successful, national model, used in about 100 cities across the country.

Protestors march to City Hall during a protest in Greene Square in southeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Saturday, July 18, 2
Protestors march to City Hall during a protest in Greene Square in southeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Saturday, July 18, 2020. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

As the poetry faculty of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, we devote a great deal of time every year to encouraging the most talented creative writers in the country to come to Iowa. We urge them to spend two years — or perhaps more, perhaps a lifetime — in this vibrant and caring state, and in one of the world’s most renowned cities for literature and writing. Iowa feeds the nation and world both literally and literarily. Through our political caucus, Iowans have also been entrusted with setting the tone of discourse for the nation. We honor these legacies as well as the responsibilities that accompany them, and we support fellow Iowans who seek to promote consistently fair and accountable treatment of all our citizens by state and local leadership.

In that spirit, we wish to ask how we, as Iowans, might move further toward change and equality? We believe that the first step must be to listen to all community members — especially those who are confronted most directly with problems of inequality, and those who have made addressing these daunting challenges their life’s work. We believe, further, that leaders in Cedar Rapids have made sincere efforts to develop a concrete, popular proposal that we can support now.

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The idea is simple: To build a community-led body that would be empaneled to investigate and respond meaningfully to questions of police misconduct. The urgency for this proposal is reflected in the numbers and lived experience of vulnerable Iowans. In Linn County, 20 minutes from the Workshop, where Black people make up only 4.8 percent of the population but 25 percent of traffic stops — and where one of our neighbors was paralyzed by a police shooting only a few years ago — the best time to take action has passed. Yet the next-best time is now: Cedar Rapids City Council has already unanimously passed a plan to create a Citizen Review Board, a group of community members, chosen by their peers, independent from local officials and police, who would have the power to investigate and respond to police misconduct. The CRB could create rules, file disciplinary charges, require information and share it with the public. It’s a proven, successful, national model, used in about 100 cities across the country. And it’s time to bring this kind of organizational structure to Iowa.

This proposal embodies the proud spirit of Iowa. It creates a greater democracy by giving power to all Iowans and ensuring that our institutions are working for the common good. The establishment of a CRB is a proactive institutional safeguard that helps to harness our significant community efforts.

In Iowa, as in our nation, Black lives continue to be in danger. Our communities live in fear of institutions entrusted with keeping all of us safe. We do not forget Jerime Mitchell, who remains paralyzed from a traffic stop that turned into a police shooting in Cedar Rapids. He, like Jacob Blake, belongs to a list of Black citizens across our nation, including Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, George Floyd, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Michael Brown and Ahmaud Arbery — all unarmed victims shot by those who are sworn to serve and protect.

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While the national crisis for racial justice and equality may feel overwhelming, we in Iowa can do something tangible and specific to make real change and, in one more way, be a shining example to our country. Building a community-led body that would have the power to investigate and respond meaningfully to police misconduct would contribute to our earnest efforts to make Iowa better for everyone.

We are not public policy experts. We are people whose work shapes language into truth and who are committed to the bright futures of young people, especially those we teach — diverse, promising young people from Iowa and beyond. We not only strive to help them hone their craft, but offer them ways to thrive as citizens in this world. We do our best work when we share our love of those who have led the way. Our students are reading Langston Hughes, Terrance Hayes, Danez Smith, Jericho Brown, Angelou, Rankine, Brooks, Milosz, Ginsberg, Dickinson, Whitman and countless others who have made art by documenting and describing legacies of oppression and struggles for justice. We continue to grapple with the words of these poets. We write to honor the past, to bear witness to the current moment and to create great work for future generations. Our students seek ways forward in a time of frightening instability and conflict. We take it as our responsibility to provide all Iowans, including our students, with a brighter future now. We support the CRB proposal to show that we treasure all Iowans. We are proud to help Iowa lead the nation.

Professors James Galvin, Mark Levine, Tracie Morris and Elizabeth Willis comprise the poetry faculty of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa.

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