Local government and nonprofit leaders have a promising and creative idea for confronting disturbances in downtown Cedar Rapids.
This week, the City Council reviewed a proposal for a “downtown ambassadors” trial program. Ambassadors will be positioned around downtown and tasked with engaging passers-by, helping to de-escalate potentially dangerous situations and keeping outdoor areas clean and orderly.
The project is a response to a series of violent incidents last spring and summer at Greene Square, including an argument in the park that led to the death of a 38-year-old man last June. Some of those events involved people experiencing homelessness, or others who rely on local social services.
Since then, various local stakeholders — including organizers from the city and Willis Dady Homeless Services — have collaborated on several policy changes and programs that they hope will curb disruptive behavior downtown.
The downtown ambassadors are just one piece of that response. It’s an idea borrowed from comparably sized Midwest cities, which have reported success with their own ambassador programs.
Willis Dady staff members will manage the ambassadors, and six of them have already been hired. One of the most encouraging aspects of the program is that overseers are specifically looking to hire people who have experience receiving social services.
The peer support model boasts multipronged benefits. It compensates vulnerable individuals for meaningful work, reducing the risk they will become involved in unlawful or unhealthy activity themselves. Additionally, the workers filling these positions are uniquely qualified to relate to others who frequent downtown gathering spots.
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The program has been approved for an initial 3-month stint, funded with $30,000 from the participating entities. City leaders will track metrics, such as police service calls to Greene Square, to measure the initiative’s success.
Organizers should be mindful of the possible perils inherent in directing workers without law enforcement training to intervene in potentially dangerous situations. Ambassadors cannot replace sworn law enforcement officers when physical confrontations emerge.
That said, minor public order offenses do not necessarily demand a response from an armed police officer. In fact, police presence may needlessly escalate some of those situations.
We hope and expect ambassadors will be well-equipped to mitigate minor disturbances, freeing up the police department to focus on its resources on serious crimes.
In short, the ambassador program has great potential to make downtown Cedar Rapids a better place for everyone.
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