I find myself in an unfamiliar position.
My career as a journalist and activist in recent years largely has focused on explaining the perils of law enforcement. I have repeatedly called for less policing, not more.
Yet here I am, applauding the Iowa City Police Department for hiring two more police officers.
The Iowa City Council passed a resolution this week approving the new positions, which will be funded by outside grants. The grant positions will be filled by existing officers, and vacancies will be backfilled by new hires.
A $350,500 grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation will support the Data-Driven Justice Initiative. A $450,000 grant through the International Association of Chiefs of Police will fund gender bias work on domestic and sexual violence.
Each program will put Iowa City in the middle of important national conversations about ongoing changes in law enforcement practices.
“Both grants are designed to be setting best practices for law enforcement nationwide. The grants aren’t just given out to any department, they were given to us because we have some things already in place,” Captain Bill Campbell told me this week.
The Data-Driven Justice Initiative was launched in 2016 by former president Barack Obama. The goal is to use incarceration statistics to reduce the population of the United States’ costly and overcrowded local jails.
The program aims to break the “cycle of incarceration” across the justice system. More than half the jail inmates around the country are mentally ill, substance dependent or both. Locking them up exacerbates their conditions, and also drains taxpayer resources.
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Such issues are gaining more attention in Eastern Iowa. Researchers here tracked four individuals using services over a five-year period and found they racked up more than $2 million in local services, yet two died and the other two remained homeless.
The Data-Driven Justice Initiative fits well with the county government’s plans to introduce a behavioral health access center, which would serve as an alternative to incarceration and hospitalization for some individuals experiencing mental health crises.
Meanwhile, the gender bias grant will help officers respond better to another prevalent problems in our community. Last year, Iowa City officers responded to more than 700 cases of relationship-related crimes.
A substantial body of research shows officers’ unconscious bias toward women and LGBT individuals can impact the way they respond to victims.
A 2016 Department of Justice report explained, “If an officer believes a sexual assault to be less severe because the victim was assaulted by an acquaintance or was intoxicated when the assault occurred … that is gender bias and may constitute unlawful discrimination.”
Both the Iowa City Police Department’s new programs acknowledge that the status quo in law enforcement has sometimes failed. Rather than deny that as so many others have, Iowa City leaders deserve credit for taking on these important issues.
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