Staff Columnist

Iowa City police substation no longer needed

Iowa City Police downtown beat officer Dave Schwindt wears a VIEVU wearable video camera as he patrols the Pedestrian Mall Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013 in downtown Iowa City. (Brian Ray/The Gazette-KCRG)
Iowa City Police downtown beat officer Dave Schwindt wears a VIEVU wearable video camera as he patrols the Pedestrian Mall Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013 in downtown Iowa City. (Brian Ray/The Gazette-KCRG)

After nearly a decade in operation, Iowa City’s police substation may soon close.

Police Chief Jody Matherly wrote a memo to the City Council last week, suggesting the police bureau in Pepperwood Plaza be shuttered, or transitioned to a dedicated community meeting space. Matherly offered a persuasive rationale, and we urge the council to accept the recommendation.

The substation opened in 2010 after “problems in the area reached a breaking point,” as Matherly — who was not hired in Iowa City until several years later — described it. A spike in violent crime incidents and juvenile delinquency in the preceding years contributed to a perception that the southeast side of Iowa City was an unsafe area.

The idea at the time was that the substation would deter crime by simply providing a highly visible police presence in the form of a storefront. The city also sought to improve relations with residents in the area through neighborhood revitalization programs.

“Broken windows” policing — where officers crack down on relatively minor public order crimes in hopes of preventing more serious offenses — was widely accepted and popular a decade ago. Today, however, there are well-founded concerns that such tactics needlessly criminalize poor communities, and ultimately threaten the public’s faith in law enforcement.

The substation’s auxiliary function as a community meeting space never fully materialized. While it has occasionally been used for such purposes, it has not been consistently staffed or open to the public.

In the years since the substation opened, crime metrics have plummeted in the neighborhoods surrounding the substation, even as the local population has grown. Between 2008 and 2018, assault cases dropped 40 percent, and weapons offenses declined a staggering 77 percent, according to data provided to the City Council.

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“The question before the city is if the continued use of the substation furthers our crime reduction and community building efforts or if it is actually counterproductive by eroding trust with some residents and by reinforcing a false narrative that the neighborhood is unsafe,” Matherly wrote.

This is the latest in a series of promising changes Matherly has offered since he was sworn in as chief in 2017. He has consistently emphasized the need for data-driven policing, and prioritized public safety over enforcing laws just for enforcement’s sake.

Contrary to whatever outdated perception may still linger in the wider community, the southeast side of Iowa City is a safe place to live and visit. There is no good reason for it to be singled out as the only part of town with its own police substation.

• Comments: (319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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