I commend Police Chief Wayne Jerman for going above the call of duty when it comes to ensuring officers are constantly trained on important topics like how to recognize biases and guard against their impacts. Jerman has arranged for additional implicit bias training for his command staff and has graciously extended an invitation to other leaders in the community. This training will take place over two days, and attendees will learn from a recognized expert.
I extended an offer to Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden to attend with me, and he politely declined, citing his intention to attend an upcoming conference where implicit bias will be presented during two introductory plenaries scheduled for an hour and fifteen minutes each.
For the past few months, law enforcement officials have been engaged in conversations to discuss ways we can make our communities safer, improve relationships, and address disparities and inequities within our justice system. Collectively, this work is referred to as justice reform. These meetings have been organized by the Iowa Justice Alliance and the NAACP.
During these conversations, it was suggested to Vander Sanden that he make plans for the entire attorney’s office to undergo in-person implicit bias training. Upon this suggestion, Vander Sanden agreed on the condition that the Board of Supervisors appropriate funding. County attorney offices across the country are being proactive about this training and mandating it for both attorneys and staff. Just last year during the State of the Judiciary Address, Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady made lessening the impact of racial disparity a priority:
“One response has been to seek better understanding of the many causes of racial disparity,” he said. “Last year, the judicial branch trained 716 judges, magistrates, and other judicial branch staff to recognize implicit biases that may contribute to racial disparities. We will continue this training this year.”
After Vander Sanden committed, I spent the next weeks educating my fellow Board members on the merits of implicit bias training. I secured the funding for the training, which amounted to $6,000 — less than a half of one percent of the total budget. I did all of this while keeping the working group of law enforcement officials and other community leaders updated.
With an expert identified and funding secured, Vander Sanden still declined.
Next I offered a compromise that would provide in-person training to the rest of his staff and attorneys who could not make the conference he planned to attend. Yet again, Vander Sanden declined.
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It is not very often elected officials find themselves at decision points with so clear a demarcation of right and wrong. Implicit biases exist in humans; that much we know to be a fact of human nature. And since training to help us overcome what has been hard-wired into our brains and culture also exists, it must become a priority for decision-makers in government, especially those charged with balancing the scales of justice.
Last week in a public meeting, Vander Sanden said, “There are other matters that we are responsible for that are certainly more important than the kind of training we are talking about this morning.” Perhaps he said those words out of frustration, or perhaps he believes them to be true.
In that same meeting, I let him know, despite our disagreements, I believe him to be a good leader. However, what we need now is for leaders to be great.
Attending one conference with two plenaries on a subject so incredibly important is not sufficient. The fact that one could believe otherwise is alarming. This misses the mark of great leadership.
A great leader would be able to connect the dots and understand how this one simple act could transform an entire office for the better and would be seen as an olive branch by communities of color that are already mistrustful of law enforcement.
Great leaders understand the concept of privilege and how it affects our view of the world, whereas peeling back the veil of privilege separates the right course of action from ego. Great leaders understand how beneficial this training can be and how it can build a bridge to address complex social problems.
I submit to you that the people of Linn County deserve a new kind politics. A politics less concerned with our differences, and more focused on areas of common ground and growth potential; one less concerned with scoring political points, and more focused on solving problems and uplifting people in the process. We can start down this path with a renewed commitment to integrity in our dealings. When you give your word in a meeting, then you should keep it. We must bring a spirit of fairness to all that we do and chose not to accept disparities and inequities within society. Finally, we must maintain a greater fidelity to the people than to our own hardened ideologies. This can be the new politics of great leadership.
Mr. Vander Sanden, I’m willing to work alongside you to advance the interests of our residents. I’m willing to join you on the journey of a new politics of great leadership. Will you accept this offer?
• Stacey Walker is a member of the Linn County Board of Supervisors.