Staff Editorial

Iowa City passed a historic police reform agenda, but now the pace of change is dwindling

Long delay in releasing video of June 3 tear gas incident shows city leaders still have a lot to learn

Protestors gather on the Pentacrest during a demonstration against police brutality and in defense of people of color in
Protestors gather on the Pentacrest during a demonstration against police brutality and in defense of people of color in Iowa City, Iowa, on Friday, June 5, 2020. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

At the onset of this year’s Black Lives Matter protests, Iowa City government officials worked at an unprecedented pace to develop an actionable police reform and racial justice agenda.

Just a few weeks after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which sparked renewed action from the Black Lives Matter protest nationally, the City Council unanimously approved a resolution with several crucial points — including banning certain aggressive equipment and tactics and committing to restructure the Iowa City Police Department.

It was a historic move in a historic moment. This editorial board and countless other stakeholders, including some protest leaders, applauded the city’s swift and meaningful action.

From there, however, the pace of change in Iowa City slowed down.

After a lull in protest activity, the local activist group known as Iowa Freedom Riders has been back in the streets the past couple weeks. At their rallies and in comments to city officials, they criticize local institutions for failing to follow through on their promises.

A glaring example of city leaders’ hand-wringing is the effort to bring some transparency to the infamous June 3 clash, where police officers shot tear gas and flashbangs at demonstrators marching toward Interstate 80 in Iowa City.

Whose streets? They’re not ours, Iowa City officials remind us

Initially, the City Council asked to receive a report about the tear gas incident by Aug. 1, but officials delayed in order to identify an suitable independent firm to carry out the inquiry, which seemed fair.


But when city staff last month presented the council with a contract for an out-of-state firm to do the investigation, council members who had seen undisclosed video of the June 3 protest suggested hiring outside help wasn’t necessary. They said the footage they saw made clear that the Iowa State Patrol made the decision to use chemical munitions.

The problem is, they are making those decisions based on video evidence the public has not seen. Press-Citizen journalist Zachary Oren-Smith said he requested the footage from the city, but was denied because it’s part of an investigation.

At a City Council meeting Tuesday night, members finally voted to go forward with the independent review, and directed city staff to release the video, which could be done as soon as this week. It was the right decision, but weeks too late. City Council members could have called for releasing police body camera footage in the days following the chaotic protest.

A key message of the Black Lives Matter movement is that the government’s typical and excruciatingly slow way of doing things is inadequate. For all their good intentions, Iowa City leaders have not yet internalized that message.

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