‘It is a milestone day’: Cedar Rapids City Council unanimously approves police review board during first vote

Protesters in Cedar Rapids marched on July 18, 2020. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

The Cedar Rapids City Council unanimously advanced an ordinance that puts the city one step closer to establishing an independent citizen review board for the Cedar Rapids Police Department. Tuesday’s vote was the first of three required to enact the ordinance.

If approved in February, Cedar Rapids will be the second city in the state of Iowa with a citizen review board. Currently, the only community in the state with such a board is Iowa City.

The ordinance’s second reading is scheduled for Feb. 9. It is possible that one of the final two readings will be waived, and the final vote happen during the Feb. 9 meeting. If not, then the third and final reading, as well as the final vote, will be scheduled for Feb. 23.

“I have described this moment to family and friends as a milestone, and I have gone from cautious optimism to optimism,” Advocates for Social Justice member Anne Harris Carter told the council on Tuesday.

“I am optimistic even though I know there are many hurdles ahead. I am optimistic even though I know there are those in this community who think this ordinance does not go far enough. I am optimistic even though I know there are those in this community that doubt the existence of systemic racism. I am optimistic even though I know there are those in this community that doubt the merits of civilian oversight, and at the other end of the spectrum, flat out disagree.”

Creating an independent citizen review board is one of seven demands ASJ brought forward during their June 6 protest. The protest was one of hundreds organized across the country following the death of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers.

Police Chief Wayne Jerman and Mayor Brad Hart announced on June 12 the city will work on establishing a review board. A week later, during a special meeting on June 19, the city council unanimously backed addressing the seven demands.

The city initially had plans for a task force to provide input and research for a citizen review board, which was discussed during a contentious June 26 meeting between ASJ and Cedar Rapids officials.

During that virtual meeting, ASJ members expressed how they felt their voices were being silenced and their research and opinions ignored. ASJ and city leaders had been meeting for several weeks at that point to discuss the demands.

Hart wrote in a July email that Cedar Rapids officials “do not plan to be part of any additional negotiation meetings” with ASJ. Hart told Little Village that the intent of the meetings was to understand the demands and share information. He added that the city “didn’t halt or call off negotiations.”

In addition to leaving signs outside Mayor Brad Hart’s house, people also left a banner with various messages. July 3, 2020. — Michael Schodin/Little Village

The process then became open to the public in late July, with Community Development Director Jennifer Pratt and Assistant Director Bill Micheel leading the effort. Pratt and Micheel shared information about the 90-day public engagement process, which included a survey, focus groups and meetings with ASJ members. Pratt said there have been more than 20 weekly meetings with ASJ since the end of July.

Pratt and Micheel presented recommendations for what a citizen review board should look like in Cedar Rapids during a council meeting on Oct. 20, but the recommendations didn’t give the board as much power as ASJ recommended. City council approved the resolution, which directed staff to create an ordinance based on the recommendations.

The citizen review board in Cedar Rapids will have six main duties, all of which are outlined in the ordinance.

The board will review quarterly reports from the police chief, police data (such as arrests and traffic stops) and CRPD policies. It will also be able to appoint at least one member to serve on any future police chief candidate selection committees.

The board will be responsible for implementing a program of community outreach with at least one community forum each year, as well as updating the city council on an annual basis.

Its final responsibility will be to oversee a monitoring system for tracking complaints against CRPD police officers. Residents will be able to file a complaint online or in person with the board, CRPD or the city clerk’s office. At an October council meeting, a flow chart was presented to show what happens once a complaint is filed.

“The citizen review board is notified of all of those complaints. They will receive a report from the chief of police with the results of the professional standards investigations, and that will have the findings of facts and evidence [and] access to the body camera footage,” Pratt said on Tuesday, adding that the witnesses, victims and officers will not be identified in the reports.

The board will decide with a majority vote if they agree with the chief’s report, disagree or want additional investigation. If the board disagrees, there will be a meeting with the police chief. If the board still disagrees with the chief following the meeting, the case will be referred to the state’s Office of Ombudsman, the Iowa Civil Rights Commission or a non-governmental independent arbiter approved by both the CRB and the city council to request an independent investigation.

Thousands of people marched through downtown Cedar Rapids on June 6 to protest police violence, racism and the killing of George Floyd. — Jason Smith/Little Village

The board will consist of nine voting members appointed by the mayor with input and approval by the city council.

Three of the members will be selected from applications submitted by the general public, and one member must be an attorney. Three members must be employees or volunteers for a nonprofit focused on racial justice, such as ASJ, NAACP or LULAC. The last two members must be employees or volunteers for a service provider that “works with underrepresented segments of the population in the areas of mental health, physical health, homelessness, food insecurity, or similar social issues.”

At least five of the members will be people of color. All members must be Cedar Rapids residents.

Members will also be required to complete various training requirements that are outlined in the ordinance. The three-year terms will be staggered and individuals can’t serve more than two consecutive terms.

Harris Carter said she is confident this citizen review board is the strongest in the state but also mentioned she is confident there is more work to be done.

“Personally, I long for our elected officials and other stakeholders to lend their voice not just to the recorded discussion, but as a matter of course in everyday interaction,” Harris Carter said. “And further, it is the hope of ASJ that a champion will step forward from this council to help ensure the strongest CRB possible over the years.”

Cedar Rapids protesters marched from Greene Square Park to City Hall on July 18, 2020. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

All nine councilmembers spoke before Tuesday’s vote. Councilmembers praised the work of city staff, ASJ, CRPD and other organizations involved with developing the ordinance — but acknowledged this is only a beginning.

“Forming a citizen’s review board is really a progressive step that will, I’m confident, help build even more trust in our police department and that will help prevent and solve crimes. Benefits us all,” Mayor Hart said, adding that the city’s board will serve as a model for other communities.

In reference to Harris Carter’s comment about looking for a champion on city council, Councilmember Dale Todd said there are “nine champions on the city council, including the city manager and the police chief, who have been behind this from the outset and simply wanted to make sure that we had the best model that we could have in place for a community like Cedar Rapids.”

“Leadership on this issue is, for those of us on the council, was tough, but leadership meant not getting involved in the process and letting the process work without us at the table,” Todd added.

Councilmember Tyler Olson mentioned there are a number of concrete benefits that will come from the citizen review board — such as data and policy review — but added that the board will also help with building trust between the police department and the community.

“I think the system that we’re going to put in place here today will help with that significantly,” Olson said about building trust. “It is a milestone day, and it’s something that has been months in the making.”

“I’m so happy, again, that we’re here, that we’re going through this, that we are facilitating this monumental effort,” Councilmember Ashley Vanorny added during her remarks.

If the ordinance is adopted in February, there will be a call for applications within four to six weeks, Micheel said. Community outreach will occur in March, April and May to make sure people are aware of the opportunity to apply, Pratt said.

Members will be appointed in June with the board beginning its duties in the summer or fall, Pratt said.

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