Staff Editorial

Don't let police review board become a rubber stamp

Police Chief Wayne Jerman speaks as members of the city council and police department meet with protest organizers at th
Police Chief Wayne Jerman speaks as members of the city council and police department meet with protest organizers at the Jean Oxley Public Service Center in Cedar Rapids Tuesday, June 9, 2020. Organizers presented a list of demands to ensure more transparency in local policing and government and racial equity within the city. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Because of the Black Lives Matter protests in Iowa and across the nation, America is seeing change.

Nationally and in our towns, laws are being made to slowly help dismantle the systematic racism that pervades America. Many of the changes should have happened a long time ago, like banning chokeholds and preventing police departments from rehiring officers fired for misconduct.

One of the changes being considered in Cedar Rapids is a citizen’s review board to review investigations into police misconduct and complaints about the department. The current plan before the Cedar Rapids City Council has very few details on the power a review board would have. But we believe this is an important next step in demanding justice and oversight over policing in our community.

However, citizen review boards are often at risk, as all bureaucratic solutions, of becoming a Band-Aid on the cancer of the large problem.

Iowa City has had a police review board since 1997, but critics of the board say it has little authority or power to enact change within the police department. Mazahir Salih, a City Council member and former member of the Iowa City police review board, told The Gazette that the board has no authority to order an officer to be disciplined or undergo additional training, nor does the board have the ability to follow up to see if suggested changes have been made.

A 2017 LA Times investigation into the citizen review board in Los Angeles found that the board was more lenient toward police.

But in other cities, like Newark and Washington, D.C. review boards, when given independence and the power to subpoena records and officer testimony and enforce discipline, can be powerful catalysts for change.

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The ACLU suggests 10 principles for a good citizen’s review board: independence, investigatory power, mandated police cooperation, adequate funding, hearings, diversity, statistical analysis, offices separate from the police, the power to make policy recommendations and disciplinary power.

This isn’t new ground Cedar Rapids is breaking. There is an overwhelming body of research and scholarship that bears these findings out. One such scholar, Olugbenga Ajilore, a senior economist for the Center for American Progress, wrote in a study in 2018, “To succeed, civilian oversight boards need resources and authority to maintain accurate data, and foster robust relationships with city officials and community members. Above all, they must operate independently of police departments themselves.”

When pushed to change, politicians often offer committees and boards as solutions instead of systemic change. Don’t let this happen in Cedar Rapids.

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

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