Staff Editorial

To fix Iowa's justice system, focus on police, not just prisons

Strong transparency rules are a necessary precursor to building public trust in law enforcement.

A Cedar Rapids police officer shows his body camera at the station in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, May 16, 2019. (Liz Marti
A Cedar Rapids police officer shows his body camera at the station in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, May 16, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Gov. Kim Reynolds last year appointed a committee to study criminal justice reform. The group’s focus so far has been on helping prisoners re-enter life on the outside, part of what Reynolds calls “the power of redemption and second chances.”

That’s important work, and the Governor’s FOCUS Committee on Criminal Justice has shown promising early results. Its first set of recommendations released last December has laudable planks regarding prison discharge, education programing and behavioral health treatment.

But this moment — when Iowans are witnessing an unprecedented series of mass protests against racism and police violence — demands a wider focus than reacclimating former inmates to productive society. We must scrutinize the whole system, starting with police’s interactions with the public.

The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month was a turning point in the movement for racial justice and police accountability. That was only possible because an onlooker gathered disturbing video footage of the scene. This underscores the unique power of video technology to make police work more transparent.

Police body cameras have become common in Iowa, with most large departments now outfitting officers with the devices. However, open records laws have lagged behind the technology.

Without strong and consistent rules requiring the prompt disclosure of police body camera footage, Americans instead rely on cellphone videos captured by civilians. In several Iowa cases, families and justice advocates have been forced into drawn-out legal battles to secure the release of important video footage months after controversial incidents.

Just this week, a judge in Jackson County determined Maquoketa police body camera footage should be released in a case involving the traffic stop of an assistant county attorney. Meanwhile, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office continues to fight a lawsuit seeking the release of basic details, including dash and body camera video in the July 2018 death of Isaiah Hayes, who was shot and killed by a Polk County sheriff’s deputy following a pursuit.

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When police departments maintain their own video footage and establish their own disclosure rules, they maintain an undue balance of power over the public. A 2016 national survey of prosecutors in jurisdictions with police body cameras found 93 percent had used body camera footage to prosecute citizens, while only 8 percent had used the footage to prosecute police officers.

Policymakers have known for some time about the need to hone camera regulations. In the Iowa Legislature, there have been proposals to require departments to equip officers with cameras, and a proposal to require the release of more body camera footage.

Iowans would be well served if Reynolds calls on her justice reform committee to develop video disclosure recommendations. The newly formed Law Enforcement Vision for Equality Task Force — a collaboration between the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP and the Iowa Police Chiefs Association — also could have valuable input.

Body cameras alone are not a solution to police misconduct, but strong transparency rules are a necessary precursor to building public trust in law enforcement.

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

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