‘We need to do better’: Iowa City Council holds listening post to discuss mental health and police reform

Community members at the Iowa City Council listening post in Mercer Park on Sept. 16, 2020. — Anjali Huynh/Little Village

The Iowa City Council held the first of six scheduled listening posts to get public input regarding community policing reforms at Mercer Park on Wednesday evening. Approximately 50 community members attended the event, which focused on how situations involving mental health, crisis intervention and addiction should be handled.

As part of the resolution passed on June 16 to address issues of systemic racism, the Iowa City Council has committed to restricting the Iowa City Police Department. Representatives from the city council will be present at each of the listening posts. On Wednesday, Mayor Bruce Teague, Councilmember Laura Bergus and Councilmember Janice Weiner answered questions and listened to feedback from attendees during the event’s question-and-answer period.

“Before we make changes that impact everyone, we need to hear from as many people as possible,” Bergus told Little Village. “We can always do better communicating, and we can always do better with outreach. I don’t think we’ve hit the end yet — it’s just the beginning.”

Before the Q&A period, speakers from Prelude Behavioral Services and CommUnity Crisis Services and Food Bank spoke about the services their organizations provide.

Many attendees called for increased support for community resources and for mental health professionals to respond to crisis-intervention incidents instead of police.

“We’re making some progress, but there’s never been enough mental health dollars,” CommUnity Executive Director Becci Reedus said.

Among the community members attending the listening post were organizers from the Iowa Freedom Riders (IFR), whose demands for changes regarding policing and systemic racism formed the framework for the city council’s 17-point resolution.

Prior to the listening post, IFR posted a call on social media for supporters to come to the listening post and advocate for not using police to respond to situations involving mental health crises. IFR organizer Raneem Hamad sent the city council a copy of the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) plan from Eugene, Oregon ahead of the event. CAHOOTS is a community policing initiative launched in 1989 to handle mental health-related crises using non-violent methods.

“We want funds to go into resources in our community that provide the necessary help for individuals in our community,” Hamad said. “The response should never be law enforcement or the punitive system that is our criminal justice system.”

Teague told attendees that CAHOOTS is “on the front of [his] list” to look at as a model to improve community policing in Iowa City.

CommUnity’s Mobile Crisis Outreach Follow-Up Counselor Parth Patel noted that police officers undergo 40 hours of Crisis Intervention Training per year, sparking indignation in the crowd. IFR supporter David Drustrup called that training insufficient, saying that as a mental health counselor himself, he’d feel “very uncomfortable” responding to mental health crises with only 40 hours of training per year.

“Not only are we currently sending police officers who only have 40 hours of training per year, but we’re sending them to the most sensitive types of situations,” Drustrup said. “I hope we can see the problematic nature of that.”

Drustrup and other people attending the event called for mental health professionals like those at CommUnity to respond to crises instead of police. This sentiment was echoed by Wangui Gathua, Iowa City Coordinator for Nisaa African Family Service, who also implored councilmembers to do a better job of reaching out to marginalized communities.

“We talk about involving social workers to be with the police because a lot of us are afraid that calling the police might mean my son is going to be shot,” Gathua said. “We will have to work harder to bring Africans to the table to have these discussions.”

Iowa City Police Department officers Andrew McKnight and Colin Fowler attended the event and said they would be willing to work with mental health professionals. McKnight said he has advocated for a co-responder model in the past and he believes that “the more training [he] can get, the better.”

“Anytime you can bring the community together to voice what their thoughts and desires are, especially on the topic we’re on now, is a good thing,” McKnight said after the event, adding that he’d “certainly welcome conversations” with IFR leaders should they wish to speak with ICPD.

Gathua told Little Village the listening post was “a very good beginning” but there is much work to be done.

“We need to do better involving marginalized communities for their input because they’re the most negatively impacted, especially as far as relationships with law enforcement are concerned,” she said.

The next city council listening post is scheduled for Tuesday, and will be held over Zoom. It will focus on issues regarding policing and people with special needs.

“Local service providers who will be in attendance include Mary Roberts of The Village Community and Sarah Martinez of Access 2 Independence of Eastern Iowa,” according to a city news release.

Anyone interested in the second listening post can register for the event online.

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