Police interactions with youth, the homeless discussed at final Iowa City Council listening posts

Mayor Bruce Teague during the Iowa City Council listening post at Dream City on Oct. 8, 2020. — Anjali Huynh/Little Village

Last week, the Iowa City Council concluded its series of listening posts to gather feedback from residents on issues related to community policing, including police interactions with young people and people experiencing homelessness.

During Monday’s listening post at Chauncey Swan Park, representatives from Shelter House, CommUnity Crisis Services, United Action for Youth and the Jail Alternatives Program of the Johnson County Justice Center spoke about their organizations’ interactions with police.

Much of the discussion on Monday dealt with mental health issues, which was also the subject of the city council’s first listening post on community policing on Sept. 16.

“What we’re always trying to do is not call the police and not send them to the hospital,” said CommUnity director Becci Reedus.

Reedus told the roughly 20 people gathered at Chauncey Swan Park how the GuideLink Center, which is scheduled to open in 2021 to provide services for those struggling with mental health or substance abuse, will assist with this goal by dispatching trained professionals to individuals who need help. But there are limits, because residents will only be able have access to GuideLink if they are both willing and mentally stable.

As they did at the first listening post in September, several supporters of the Iowa Freedom Riders (IFR) spoke at length on Monday about Eugene, Oregon’s Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) model. CAHOOTS, a community policing initiative launched in 1989 to handle mental health-related crises using non-violent methods, is being considered by Iowa City Council as a model on how to increase community policing.

“We do not want police responding to mental health calls in any capacity,” said IFR supporter Annie Gudenkauf. “Cops are trained on how to catch people, while mental health professionals are trained with compassion.”

Associate Executive Director of Shelter House Mark Settrch told Little Village that police are called when someone has a mental health crisis that “becomes a safety issue.” He described Shelter House’s relationship with ICPD as mainly positive, saying, “Even when we’ve had times where the response wasn’t what we wanted it to be, they’ve been very amenable.”

The conversations during Thursday’s session on youth and the police included discussions of systemic racism and implicit bias in the community.

The session was held at Dream City, a nonprofit in Iowa City’s South District that provides “comprehensive family-focused supports,” as its website explains.

Frederick Newell, Dream City’s founder and executive, spoke at the listening post, saying that although many focus on the adverse impact the police can have on Black youth, a more fundamental problem is individuals in the community who see Black people as threats and are quick to call the police.

White individuals should restructure their thinking so the community can do more than “check a box” and move on, Newell said.

At Thursday’s meeting, Mayor Bruce Teague and Councilmember Laura Bergus reiterated the city council’s commitment to enact sustained changes, saying that the intent of the listening posts was to solicit as much feedback as possible to determine how to move forward.

“This is going to be something we work on as a community, and not only is council dedicated, but the people you see at this and the other six listening posts, they’re committed to this work, and we will get it done,” Teague told the approximately 20 people at the listening post.

Daisy Torres, a community outreach assistant for the ICPD, said the restrictions on in-person events due to COVID-19 had limited the department’s efforts at organizing events with police officers and community members.

“[Police] have a very important job in the community, but it does take a whole community to get some of these issues handled,” Torres told Little Village. “We all need to show youth that we care because when kids realize that no one cares about them, they by default don’t care about how they affect other people.”

Northwest Junior High Student Advisory Center Coordinator Corderol Campbell attended the Thursday event, where he talked about his experiences working with youth in the Iowa City Community School District, noting that there have been instances when situations escalated with students of color unnecessarily.

While Campbell said these listening posts were a great “first step,” he believes local officials need to do more to address concerns from people of color in the Iowa City community.

“Being a person of color sharing my experiences, it’s important that they hear what I have to say because my voice does matter,” Campbell told Little Village. “It’s great to have these conversations, but we need to see action. There’s more that needs to be addressed.”

These last two listening posts on relations between ICPD and the community happened the same week the city council unanimously approved the selection of Dustin Liston as Iowa City’s new chief of police. A native of Eldora, Iowa and a University of Iowa graduate, Liston has served as a police officer in El Paso, Texas for 22 years.

In responses to a questionnaire submitted as part of the application process, Liston said he hopes to “expand on the positive gains made in social justice” in Iowa City. Liston also stressed the importance of procedural justice — which he describes as being based on “fairness in the processes, transparency in actions, opportunities for voice, and impartiality in decision making” — in his answers, saying it creates a strong foundation for building better relations between police officers and the community.

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