Staff Columnist

Cedar Rapids officials take premature victory lap for their police reform efforts

The city could have the best police department in the whole country, but it still would suffer from the fundamental defects in our law enforcement systems

Protestors march down Pioneer Trail SE during a rally organized by Advocates for Social Justice in Cedar Rapids on Frida
Protestors march down Pioneer Trail SE during a rally organized by Advocates for Social Justice in Cedar Rapids on Friday, July 3, 2020. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

To hear city government officials tell it, you would hardly think there’s any need for more police accountability in Cedar Rapids.

The City Council this week advanced a plan to create a citizens’ review board of police in Cedar Rapids, which would be the second such board in the state. It’s a good idea brought forth by racial justice activists, but elected officials this week offered a peculiar framing of the issue.

For almost an hour, council members sung the praises of the Cedar Rapids Police Department. Mayor Brad Hart said it’s one of the best departments. Council members said their vote marked historic progress, making Cedar Rapids a national leader on good policing.

Council members Dale Todd, Ashley Vanorny and Tyler Olson delivered more solemn remarks, calling out systemic racism and mentioning George Floyd, who was killed by police this year in Minneapolis, setting off a renewed Black Lives Matter movement.

In whole, the meeting felt like a celebration of mutual back-patting, rather than the thoughtful reflection on ongoing law enforcement crises it should have been.

Cedar Rapids could have the very best police department in the whole country, but it still would suffer from the fundamental defects in our government institutions. That doesn’t mean our officers are bad people (they’re not), but means the whole system needs careful scrutiny, from Congress to City Hall.

While most residents in all racial groups report positive interactions with police, Black Cedar Rapids residents have been more likely than their white neighbors to report negative interactions with police, according to a survey the city leaders conducted to inform their police reform discussions.

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Black people in Linn County are 10 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white residents, according to an ACLU report this year. That’s even worse than the state average, which ranks as the fifth-worst disparity in the nation.

Those figures weren’t highlighted during the City Council meeting, as members voted to approve a watered-down plan for a citizens’ review board.

The forthcoming board will be tasked with reviewing reports filed by the police chief, rather than initiating its own investigations or issuing binding decisions. It’s much weaker than racial justice protesters hoped for.

Maybe it’s the best Cedar Rapids can do right now, but this is not the historic progress city leader are making it out to be. Iowa City has had a similarly structured review board for more than 20 years, yet some Iowa Citians still complain of over-policing and unfair treatment.

No community is immune from the prospect of police misconduct, no matter how well trained or accredited the local law enforcement agencies are.

Cedar Rapids City Council members were right to move forward with the review board plan, imperfect as it might be, and they gave the local reformers Advocates for Social Justice due credit for their contributions, even after the mayor said this summer he would cut off talks with the group.

Cedar Rapids is moving in the right direction, but it’s not yet cause for civic celebration.

Comments: adam.sullivan@thegazette.com; (319) 339-3156

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