Last year was a historic one, filled with trials and tribulations. But when we look back on 2020 a decade from now, we hope to see a few days in June as a turning point for racial justice and police accountability in Eastern Iowa.
In the same week last year, city councils in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City unanimously approved significant plans to reform their policing activities. It came following a few weeks of mass protests following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Several months in, the Corridor cities are making slow and steady progress toward fulfilling the commitments in their June resolutions. However, without willing partners at the state level, local governments in Iowa are unlikely to achieve justice activists’ loftiest goals.
Persistent defects in our law enforcement systems have been obvious for many years, at least to people of color who are disproportionately targets of enforcement. The renewed racial justice movement last year thrust those issues to the top of the public agenda. At last, our overwhelmingly white elected officials were forced by public pressure to take serious action.
Last spring, state legislators passed and the governor signed a bill to limit police chokeholds and ban the rehiring of officers fired for misconduct. The next week, Cedar Rapids and Iowa City passed resolutions calling for specific police reform and racial equity measures. Considering the usual pace of government, these were remarkable developments, coming less than a month after Floyd’s death.
Cedar Rapids’ plan includes forming an independent citizens’ review board, decriminalizing minor marijuana offenses and imposing stricter body camera rules for officers. Iowa City’s plan includes restructuring the police department toward community policing, increased authority for the citizen police review board and prohibiting the use of tear gas against peaceful protesters.
Both cities have already made meaningful headway.
The Cedar Rapids City Council last month gave initial approval to a citizens’ police review board. A nine-member board appointed by the mayor will be tasked with some oversight responsibilities, to include reviewing reports of misconduct, offering input on police policies and participating in the hiring of police chiefs.
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While local activists initially envisioned a board with greater oversight and disciplinary powers, Cedar Rapids’ board appears to have strong community support and is backed by outside experts.
Iowa City in particular has proved itself a state leader on police reform. City officials regularly publish detailed update reports on its racial equity initiatives and in December released a 246-page preliminary plan for restructuring the police department, which serves as the basis for ongoing discussions among electeds and the public.
The Iowa City Council in recent weeks approved funding for two new positions to work with the police department — a street outreach specialist to be employed by Shelter House and a crisis intervention liaison to be employed by Community Crisis Services.
Importantly, while the new positions are partially funded by the city police budget, they are civilian workers. The goal is to provide alternatives to armed police response in some situations and connect vulnerable community members to services.
We applaud Cedar Rapids’ and Iowa City’s important work so far, but we also urge them to do more, such as:
• Consider models to divert more public safety activities away from police departments
• Explore ways to give citizen review boards a more active role in investigating police misconduct
• Limit enforcement of drug laws and other restrictions not directly related to public safety
Unfortunately, cities in Iowa cannot take up those reforms on their own and state officials show little interest.
Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proposed “Back the Blue Act” would withhold all state funding from local jurisdictions that reduce police budgets. It is a misguided big-government idea that would ensure police budgets keep growing, even if cities find more efficient ways to address crime.
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It looks like a way for Reynolds to win political points against the unpopular “defund the police” movement, even though Iowa cities are planning to increase their police budgets.
Reynolds’ bill also would ramp up penalties for rioting and attacks against police officers, which we think are adequately addressed in existing law. The tough-on-crime provisions are inexplicably packaged with a ban on racial profiling and improvements to the state Justice Advisory Board, meant to boost community policing. In whole, her bill is one step forward and several steps back.
On drug policy, legislative Democrats have introduced bills to legalize or decriminalize marijuana, but Republicans who control the Legislature have not advanced them.
Iowa City is looking at possible paths to strengthen its citizen review board, but it’s not totally clear what authority cities have to bolster civilian oversight of police. As more communities look to implement such boards, it will be important for the state to provide some guidance. Some stakeholders have called for a study bill to examine allowable authorities of police review boards, but that does not appear to be on the legislative agenda.
Cedar Rapids’ and Iowa City’s progress is real, but it’s limited by the constraints of state government. The governor and legislators must do more to promote justice and accountability.
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