Staff Columnist

Iowa City plans to focus public safety resources on actual public safety

Policymakers in Iowa and elsewhere seek to address the 'driving while Black' problem

A Jones County Sheriff's Office deputy conducts a search of a subject's vehicle during a traffic stop near Anamosa, Iowa
A Jones County Sheriff's Office deputy conducts a search of a subject's vehicle during a traffic stop near Anamosa, Iowa on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

If you want to reduce cases of police misconduct and racial bias, you can go a long way by simply having fewer interactions between police and the public.

The Iowa City Police Department no longer will initiate stops for minor infractions, such as jaywalking or broken vehicle lights during the day. The goal is to reduce racial disproportionality in the city’s police work, which leaders say erodes the community’s trust.

The truth is no one really likes minor traffic stops, except maybe die-hard nanny statists.

Pretextual policing involves stopping a subject for a minor infraction with the intention of finding a more serious crime, such as unlawful possession of drugs or weapons. It’s all perfectly legal in Iowa.

People of color frequently complain that traffic stops for petty offenses are racially motivated, giving rise to the unofficial crime of “driving while Black.” And police officers often say traffic stops are among their most dangerous tasks because they can’t readily see a driver’s hands or possible weapons.

Iowa City officials have tracked demographic data from traffic stops for more than a decade. While the department has made progress on reducing disproportionality for discretionary arrests, data shows minority drivers still are more likely to be stopped and searched in Iowa City than white drivers.

Iowa City police have a “reduced interest” in equipment violations that aren’t directly related to traffic safety, according to a memo sent last month to officers by interim Police Chief Denise Brotherton. Under the policy, officers shall not initiate stops solely for secondary traffic and regulatory violations.

Officers also are prohibited from running license plates through the national database without a public safety rationale, per to the memo.

So-called pretextual stops are the basis for many police interactions. The strategy involves stopping a subject for a minor infraction with the intention of finding a more serious crime, such as unlawful possession of drugs or weapons. It’s all perfectly legal in Iowa.

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The Iowa Supreme Court last year issued a decision affirming the legality of pretextual stops. It came from a 2015 case, in which a Waterloo officer observed a traffic violation but initiated a stop only after he learned the vehicle’s owner was associated with local gang activity.

Civil rights groups and the driver in the Waterloo case, who was not the owner of the vehicle, challenged the charges, but Iowa’s high court found “the subjective motivations of an individual officer for making the stop are irrelevant.”

With the renewed racial justice and police accountability movement, advocates are again raising the issue of excessive police stops. Like Iowa City, some states and cities are considering outright bans on secondary or pretextual stops.

At the state level in Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds’ criminal justice reform committee recently released recommendations for the upcoming legislative session. Members are calling for a bill to require demographic data collection on law enforcement stops and a ban on racial profiling in law enforcement. Those would make a good start toward ending unnecessary stops.

Iowa City’s restrictions on secondary offenses are temporary for now, but leaders expect to make it a permanent department policy as long as it doesn’t prove detrimental to traffic safety.

Imagine that! Limiting public safety activity to only include things that promote public safety. Maybe Iowa City is on to something here.

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

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