City of Cedar Rapids shares how public can get involved in creation of a citizen review board

People in Cedar Rapids rallied against systemic racism and oppression on Friday, July 3. — Michael Schodin/Little Village

City staff shared information during Tuesday’s Cedar Rapids City Council meeting about the 90-day process to create a citizen review board, including how the public can get involved, goals of the process and next steps.

But residents who spoke after the presentation during the meeting’s public comment period raised concerns about how the work is duplicating what has already been done by the Advocates for Social Justice (ASJ). Speakers also brought up how ASJ needs to be involved in the city’s process.

Creating an independent citizen review board in Cedar Rapids is one of seven demands ASJ has brought to the city. Police Chief Wayne Jerman and Mayor Brad Hart announced on June 12 the city is working on establishing a review board. A week later, during a special meeting on June 19, the city council unanimously backed addressing the seven demands.

Most of the attention so far has focused on the citizens review board. At first, city officials had plans for a task force to provide input and research for the board, which was discussed during a June 26 meeting between ASJ and Cedar Rapids officials. Now the process is going to be open to the public.

The 90-day plan includes three main parts: process development, public engagement and results. Jennifer Pratt and Bill Micheel, both part of the city’s Community Development department, presented information to the council on what the public engagement process will look like. (Pratt is the community development director and Micheel is the assistant director.)

Before getting into the details, Pratt brought up how the department is making sure implicit biases are being addressed as the process continues.

“I couldn’t start this without just starting with implicit bias because I think this is something we just need to keep repeating, that we understand that this is a reality, that the Community Development Department understands that we are committed to identifying our own biases and avoiding deficiencies in our process,” said Pratt, who is the director of the department. “So while we are doing this process, we are consistently consulting with stakeholders and experts to make sure that even the little things — like the phrasing of a survey question or how we distribute surveys and our focus group representation — do not have any of those deficiencies.”

There are more than 150 citizens review boards across the country, Micheel said. Iowa only has one recognized board in the state, and it’s the board in Iowa City.

The actions of a citizens review board vary depending on what type of model a community adopts, Micheel said. Micheel presented some common activities of a citizen review board:

• Review complaints to determine if policies were followed
• Evaluate performance data to identify problems
• Prioritize issues to be reviewed
• Recommend new or enhanced policies
• Recommend new or enhanced training

Pratt said the city’s primary goals in creating a citizens review board are to ensure law enforcement accountability, bolster confidence in police, increase and improve public cooperation, and make the community safer for everyone. She added that the goals will continue to be refined.

The purpose of a board, Micheel said, is to “create an independent body to influence and change police practices, to ensure community law enforcement is constitutional, effective and responsive to standards, values and needs of those to be served.”

City staff is engaging with professionals and groups to understand effective practices, challenges and get feedback on the public input process, Micheel said. He also added that “input from minority voices is critical to success.”

One of the first parts of the public engagement process will be a survey. The survey will be available online and hard copies will be distributed by various groups in the community, including NAACP, ASJ and faith communities.

The city also has an online form where people can submit their input and ideas.

City staff will preview survey questions with ASJ, in addition to getting feedback from the National Research Center, law enforcement professionals and NACOLE. (NACOLE is the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, a nonprofit that works to establish and improve oversight of police officers across the country.)

Another part of the public engagement process is focus groups that will provide a mix of perspectives, Micheel said. The groups will meet via Zoom, and there will be less than 10 people on a call.

“The purpose of the focus groups is to take a bit of a deeper dive in with some of those groups,” Micheel said. “It’s a facilitated discussion to better understand interests. What activities should this board engage in? What authority should it have, board representation and, again, searching out that mix of perspectives.”

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

City staff are scheduled to present results from the survey and focus groups to the council on Aug. 25. About a month later, there will be a third presentation on results and recommendations. Right now that presentation is scheduled for the council’s Sept. 22 meeting.

The recommendations will be based on best practices from existing citizens review boards, current conditions and feedback from public engagement, Pratt said.

“What we found with this 90-day plan is that, for some people, that is just a really long time, and we understand that,” Pratt said. “There are a lot of issues out there and a lot of energy behind those. I would say as far as our normal processes, this is a condensed version of it, but we are confident that we have the support and the capacity to be able to get this done and get a good product back to council in 90 days.”

Pratt said that city staff met with ASJ Tuesday morning to go over the process, and she thinks regular meetings will be happening with the group.

Councilmember Scott Olson brought up how a citizens review board will have an impact on the community for a long time, and that councilmembers need to be active in the formation process.

“Please find ways for us to get involved and each of us bring something different to the table,” Olson said. “And I’m confident that by all of us working together, along with the process and the groups that are already working on this, that we can make a difference. I want to make sure that when it comes time for that final vote that I feel comfortable that we’ve made the best choices and have something that is really going to work that impacts our community.”

Councilmember Ashley Vanorny, who was the only member from the council to attend ASJ’s public forum and march on July 18, encouraged residents to give their input during the process and through the online form.

“If you have something, if you’ve been doing research, if there’s something you want to share, it’s really important that we try and pass as wide of a net as possible to make sure that we hear from everybody who has had those interactions that might have a voice to share,” Vanorny said.

Cedar Rapids City councilmember Ashley Vanorny at the panel discussion organized by ASJ on July 18, 2020. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

A total of 12 people signed up to speak during the council’s public comment period. Eleven of those individuals spoke in favor of having ASJ involved. (One person had a question about the process, but questions can’t be answered during a public comment period.)

Those who spoke brought up the research ASJ has done and made public earlier this week. They asked for ASJ to be involved and at the forefront of the city’s process.

The group put together an 18-page research brief with 11 recommendations for a citizens review board, and emphasized that race needs to be “at the center” of discussions about design. The recommendations have been endorsed by more than 20 individuals, including criminal justice activist Phillip Agnew, social psychologist Evelyn Carter and Iowa activist and organizer Misty Rebik.

The Advocates for Social Justice led a march to Cedar Rapids City Hall on July 18, 2020. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

Anne Harris Carter, who was involved in preparing and writing the research brief, spoke on Tuesday about lasting change. Harris Carter brought up the story of her parents, Percy and Lileah Harris.

“Today I live in the house that my parents planned nearly 60 years ago,” Harris Carter said. “Some of you know their story. Dad served as Linn County Medical Examiner for decades, and Mom gave birth to 12 children. Both were active in this community on matters related to health care, education, the arts, civil rights and so much more. But when Dad completed his internship, and it came time to find a home for the family, discrimination was no subtle thing.”

“My parents were able to purchase the land where my home is because of white allies who used their voice to speak up on their behalf. The voices of those allies necessarily drowned out objectors to the Black family moving into the neighborhood.”

Percy, Lileah and their four oldest children moved to Cedar Rapids in 1957, after Dr. Harris accepted an internship at St. Luke’s Hospital. Four years after their move to Cedar Rapids, the couple was looking for a larger home for their family, but property owners were refusing to sell to a Black family.

Ultimately, the family was able to purchase land sold by the St. Paul’s United Methodist Church after a vote, but the issue divided the church’s members.

The couple built their home and moved in in 1963. Discussing the vote and land decision in 2010, Lileah called it “quite a little fight.” The couple lived there for the rest of their lives. (Lileah died in 2014 at age 83, and Percy died in 2017 at 89.)

“I’m cautiously optimistic about what we can accomplish if we work through this together — Advocates for Social Justice, city leadership and staff and the greater Cedar Rapids community,” Harris Carter said. “Because when I look around our country, our state and our city, when I look at my children, when I look at the fervor of the ASJ co-founders, when I close my eyes and think of my 9-year-old granddaughter donning a face mask and carrying a megaphone at a Chicago protest, I am convinced there is no better time than now.”

Dedric Doolin, who is the Cedar Rapids branch president of the NAACP and member of ASJ, had a similar message during his public comment on Tuesday.

“We have often heard it takes time to make changes, ‘be patient, we’re working on it.’ How long? Again, how long shall we wait to be treated fairly with respect in accordance with the law? How long must we wait for the city of Cedar Rapids to take meaningful action to make change? … It is frustrating to keep hearing ‘Wait. We’re working on it. Wait, wait.’”

“How long must we wait?”

Dedric Doolin, Cedar Rapids branch president of the NAACP, spoke in front of City Hall during the July 18 march organized by Advocates for Social Justice. In front of Doolin is a banner that was signed by those who attended the march. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village