Staff Editorial

Town could be model to curb over-policing

A University Heights Police Officer walks to his car in this 2009 file photo after giving a warning to a woman who was speeding along Melrose Ave. while on her way to University Hospitals in Iowa City. (Gazette Archives)
A University Heights Police Officer walks to his car in this 2009 file photo after giving a warning to a woman who was speeding along Melrose Ave. while on her way to University Hospitals in Iowa City. (Gazette Archives)

University Heights, with a population of a little more than 1,000, has adopted one of Iowa’s strongest municipal ordinances against misconduct and racial profiling by police. It’s a welcome development we hope other communities will follow closely and look to duplicate.

The city’s new rules make several important changes. Explicit and implicit bias are prohibited, and a citizen advisory board is established to resolve complaints against officers.

Perhaps most importantly, police officers are directed to collect demographic information about people with whom they come into contact, and that data will be reviewed annually by the citizen advisory board.

Silvia Quezada, one of the City Council member who led the effort to adopt the ordinance, credited The Gazette’s reporting in part for spurring the discussion. In 2016, reporter Erin Jordan noted police in University Heights issued speeding tickets at nearly 100 times the rate of officers in neighboring Iowa City, and the town had twice as many officers per 1,000 residents as other comparably sized communities.

Other factors were a high turnover rate among department staff, and concerning comments about police department operations in personnel documents that have not been disclosed to the public.

Quezada sought input from Iowa organizations working on racial justice issues, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, American Civil Liberties Union and the League of United Latin American Citizens.

“It was very helpful to have knowledgeable organizations walking Council as a group and individually through issues and concerns,” Quezada wrote in an email to The Gazette this week.

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It’s a notable example of how a small community can address big issues in a collaborative way.

There have been several bills in the Iowa Legislature in recent years to require rules similar to University Heights’ in departments statewide. House File 122 in the current session would create an Iowa community policing advisory board to help create rules gathering and analyzing data about police stops.

We see significant value in standardizing the collection of demographic data in police interactions across the state, but we also are sensitive to the concern that a one-size-fits-all mandate might create unforeseen challenges for more than 300 law enforcement agencies, each with its own unique practices and challenges.

The best solution is for local governments to adopt their own strong rules to combat excessive stops and racial profiling. Kudos to University Heights for taking the lead.

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

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