Business leaders laud increased police presence downtown

Iowa City's Ped Mall
Downtown District Operations Director Betsy Potter says perception is the key to bringing people to the downtown area. — photo by Randy Stern

In January, the Iowa City Police Department, in cooperation with the Downtown District, chose Officer David Schwindt for the position of full-time beat cop for the downtown area.

When the Iowa City Downtown District formed just over a year and a half ago, business owners wanted to focus on making Iowa City’s downtown area more attractive to both residents and visitors alike. Officer Schwindt’s assignment, which the District advocated for and helped to fund, is seen among District leaders as a victory in the fight to improve downtown Iowa City.

Last year, the Iowa City Police Department received approval for a federal Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grant, which would provide funding for 75 percent of the salaries and benefits of two new police officers over a three year period. After that three year period, however, the city had to agree to pay 100 percent of the officers’ salaries for a fourth year. This presented a significant budgeting issue, and the Downtown District decided to step in.

The District offered to contribute $10,000 per year over four years to help offset the overall cost to the city, but in return they asked that the Police Department assign one of the two new officers to the downtown area. The city accepted the Downtown District’s proposal, and local business owners are starting to feel the effects of Officer Schwindt’s presence.

Perception problem?

Downtown District Operations Director Betsy Potter says perception is the key to bringing people to the downtown area. One obstacle business owners face as they work to make the downtown area more attractive to visitors is a group of panhandlers who frequently occupy the area near the Dubuque Street entrance to the Pedestrian Mall.

“You can ask any business owner what one of their biggest issues is, and it is that population that tends to hang out in one particular area,” Potter said. “It is a perception of danger, and they just make people feel uncomfortable sometimes. Whether it is actually that situation or not, it is all about the perception.”

Potter says Schwindt has made a lot of progress by spending time on a daily basis with these people, many of whom are homeless.

“He does spend a lot of time with that population in particular because they are the people that are out during the day when he is on patrol,” Potter said.

A nuanced approach

“The complaints I get are mainly having a lot of garbage bags, backpacks, duffel bags, and stuff laying all over the place, in the planters, breaking the flowers, or covering benches so that people can’t use them,” Schwindt said.

“Well, our City Code explicitly allows lying on benches, and the planters. I get a lot of complaints that aren’t necessarily illegal, but some people just don’t like,” Schwindt added. “I work towards educating people down there who actually are violating the laws by giving warnings and providing informational sheets on what the ordinances are. On the other hand, I also work with educating people who complain about behaviors that are actually legal to do, but maybe they just don’t like.”

William Nusser, the owner of Hands Jewelers and current President of the Downtown District, says he has seen improvement since Schwindt was assigned to the area, but not as much as he had originally hoped for.

“There’s been progress made,” Nusser said. “He’s made as much progress as I think he can possibly make by himself.”

As a local business owner, Nusser expected more one-on-one time with Officer Schwindt, but realizes now that one officer might not be enough to police the entire downtown area. He hopes that the Downtown District will be able to fund more officers in the near future.

George Etre, a member of the Downtown District who owns both Formosa and Takanami, understands that changes to the city’s culture can take time to occur.

“My original background was with alcohol,” Etre said. “I had a bar for seven years. Dealing with the alcohol, and dealing with the city, I understand how long things take to change.”

Etre says he is pleased with what Schwindt has been able to accomplish in his relatively short time downtown. The most immediate improvement, according to Etre, is the ability local businesses now have to contact a specific police officer directly. In the past, Etre says, businesses had to deal with different officers every time they called the police. That process sometimes became very time consuming, and he feels that more officers dedicated solely to working the downtown beat will only serve to further assist local business owners.

“I don’t think you can ever be too safe,” Etre said. “No matter how safe we are, I would still like to be safer because downtown is growing. Moen’s building Park 201, we have more businesses coming, so there are more people coming downtown. As we grow we should have more and more enforcement.”