Cedar Rapids mayoral candidates face questions on systemic racism in policing and increasing equity at forum

Mayor Brad Hart, Amara Andrews, Tiffany O’Donnell (from left to right) — photo credit: Izabela Zaluska/Little Village, Jason Smith/Little Village, Tiffany O’Donnell campaign Facebook page

The three candidates vying to be mayor of Cedar Rapids participated in a forum on Saturday evening that focused on improving diversity, equity and inclusion in the city.

The forum, organized by the African American Professions of the Iowa Corridor, and was held at Sinclair Auditorium on the Coe College campus. Individuals were able to attend in person or watch the event via livestream on Facebook.

Moderator Ron Corbett, who served as mayor of Cedar Rapids from 2010-18, asked candidates Tiffany O’Donnell, Amara Andrews and Mayor Brad Hart a total of six questions that were submitted by the public prior to the event. The questions covered various topics, including systemic racism in policing, prioritizing equity and increasing involvement of people of color on the city’s boards and commissions.

The question about systemic racism in policing referenced an article the Gazette published last November about E.J. Merriweather, a Black Cedar Rapids Police officer and the president of the union bargaining unit that represents members of the CRPD.

Merriweather said he does not believe systemic racism exists in law enforcement, either locally or nationally. The individual who submitted the question wanted to know whether the candidates agreed with Merriweather and requested that candidates give a yes or no answer followed by an explanation.

Andrews said she “unequivocally” does not agree with Merriweather’s comments.

“I think the problem is that when we hear the word racism, people assume some bad intention. People assume you’re accusing them of being racist,” Andrews said. “That’s not what systemic racism is. Systemic racism is basically systemic power. It’s when a system gives power or privilege to a group over another and then there’s a disparate impact to the other groups.”

As an example of systemic racism within law enforcement, Andrews referenced a report the ACLU published early last year about disparities in arrests for marijuana possession. The report found that a Black person in Iowa is 7.26 times more likely to be arrested. That number is even higher in Linn County, where a Black person is 9.65 times more likely to be arrested for the offense than someone who is white.

Andrews said more people of color need to be recruited to serve as CRPD officers in order to make the department more diverse. Out of 216 sworn personnel in the CRPD, four are Black, according to the department’s annual report from 2020.

“The police department also needs to be more diverse and reflect the community in which it is supposed to protect and serve,” she said.

Andrews, who is the vice president of the board for the nonprofit Advocates for Social Justice, said the seven demands ASJ is advocating for “are an effort to dismantle systemic racism in our police department, specifically.” ASJ played a key role in working with the city to establish an independent citizen review board in Cedar Rapids — only the third of its kind created in the state of Iowa.

Hart noted the question asked for a yes-or-no answer but said “there’s just no way to do that.”

He said the disparities Andrews cited are troubling and concerning, but added that he knows Cedar Rapids has a “top-notch police department” that is accredited by CALEA. Cedar Rapids is the sixth community in the country to have a CALEA accredited police department along with an independent citizen review board. (CALEA — Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies — was created in 1979 as a credentialing authority for public safety agencies.)

“It’s clear that some of the 18,000-plus police departments in the country still have systemic racism,” Hart said, but he did not say whether or not there is systemic racism within the CRPD.

O’Donnell also did not give a yes-or-no answer about whether or not there is systemic racism within the CRPD. She added that she knows there are people who are angry and that this is a “highly emotional issue, rightfully so.”

However, O’Donnell did say that it’s clear there is systemic racism in law enforcement at the national level.

As mayor, O’Donnell said she would focus on making sure the department is following best practices, continuing proactive policing and addressing issues of mental health. She also said she supports restorative justice.

“I think our police department is doing incredible work in these areas, and talking with our chief just last week, really open to constantly evaluating how we are policing and being willing to examine what we’re doing reflects the needs of our culture and community,” O’Donnell said.

The next question asked the candidates how they plan to track their efforts to improve diversity in city government so the public can be kept informed of the work being done.

Before answering the question, Andrews said she “wanted to go back to that last question because I think I was the only person that answered it.”

“I also just want to clarify that saying that there is systemic racism in our police department does not mean that our police are bad or that they’re not well trained, and that they’re not well intentioned,” Andrews said. “I agree that our police have a tough, tough job.”

Andrews then proceeded to answer the question about tracking diversity by saying that she would want to be open and transparent. A potential way to do this would be to create dashboards that the public has access to. These dashboards would be a way to measure success and performance, Andrews said. But she added that diversity “is not a performative checklist.”

“This is tough work,” Andrews said. “It is dismantling systems. It is unlearning racist policies that have existed since the beginning of time. So, it is not something that we can just throw up on a board and put the checkmark by. This is work that takes time.”

Hart said equity is a “key part” of initiatives the city has undertaken, including ReLeaf Cedar Rapids and the Community Climate Action Plan. Hart mentioned the city is currently in the process of hiring a diversity, equity and inclusion manager.

He also added that in his first year as mayor, the number of applicants for the city’s boards and commissions increased by 37 percent. He encouraged individuals watching the forum to serve on a board and commission, including the citizen review board which is taking applications through the end of May.

“Our goal, of course, is to have all of our boards and commissions reflect the diversity of our community,” Hart said.

O’Donnell said the city needs to “do better” and “be intentional” about increasing diversity on boards and commissions, as well as within city staff. She said it’s important to make a goal, figure out a way to measure it and be transparent in results.

“As mayor, I would advocate to be transparent about what that goal is and set it on the agenda as a regularly placed opportunity to talk about how we’re doing, whether we’re doing well or not,” O’Donnell said.

She also urged the city to speed up the process of hiring a diversity, equity and inclusion manager, pointing out that the position was first announced approximately nine months ago.

The forum concluded with each candidate having three minutes for final remarks.

Andrews was the first to speak and described herself as the best candidate for voters who make diversity, equity and inclusion a priority. Andrews related how she’s worked on these issues throughout her career as a teacher, lawyer and businesswoman.

O’Donnell told the audience that what she’s accomplished in the last 20 years as a member of the community is indicative of what she would accomplish if elected as mayor. She stressed the importance of diversity and inclusion and how she would want everybody in Cedar Rapids to feel safe and seen.

“The key to a vibrant community is the citizens,” O’Donnell said.

Hart said the people of Cedar Rapids have been resilient during an “unimaginable year of crisis” and acknowledged that there is still more work to be done. He said he wants to create more trust and transparency between residents and the CRPD.

Hart highlighted the Cedar Rapids City Council adopting ASJ’s seven demands two weeks after the demands were announced.

“Diversity, equity and inclusion is a key thing. We’re committed to moving forward in all of these areas,” Hart said. “This is a terrific community, and it has a very bright future if we all work together.”

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