Iowa City police working to improve relationships with the community

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Iowa City Hall — photo by Zak Neumann

The Iowa City Police Department is working to foster trust and improve relationships with the community by addressing racial profiling and bridging the gap between police officers and minorities, Iowa City Police Chief Jody Matherly said in an address to the Iowa City Council during its April 18 work session.

The police department “can do better,” Matherly said, highlighting plans to improve education and training and expand community outreach.

“I’ll be quite frank, I think we failed in that area,” he said, speaking about education and training of the police force.

To help educate police officers in using discretion when dealing with members of the public, Matherly said the department will work with University of Iowa Social Work Professor Sarah Bruch. Bruch’s research looks at the interplay between social stratification, including racial and economic inequalities, and public policy.

“She is right on the same page as far explaining to the officers how we can disassociate crime and race associations,” Matherly said.

He said Bruch’s research and work with the University of Iowa Public Policy Center will help educate the police force on how to decide who to stop and what tickets to give out.

“When we make those decisions can we make them properly so it has a positive effect on the community when we’re doing that policing,” he said.

Both Matherly and Bruch said that specifics about the training and when it will be provided are still being discussed, although it will likely take place this summer.

“The goal of the training is to provide the police officers with an understanding of how their interactions with people in the community can have persistent social and civic consequences, and to share with the officers what types of interactions are associated with more positive as well as more negative consequences,” she said in an email.

Matherly also cited examples of how to make the police force more of a protective force than an enforcement presence, suggesting that officers become more engaged in the community, get out of squad cars and “play a pickup game of basketball” with community members.

Some council members voice concerns during the session, including Rockne Cole, who said the issue of random consent searches at traffic stops “strikes me as corruptible,” adding that he is worried that a person of color is more likely to be asked to consent to a search and that it is less likely that police officers will find anything illegal.

Cole’s concern is part of a national discussion about the impact of race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status on policing. One recent Stanford University study looked at data from 4.5 million traffic stops in 100 North Carolina cities and found that blacks and Hispanics were more likely to be searched, and those searches were less likely to turn up illegal drugs or weapons when compared with searches of white or Asian drivers.

Matherly said the department will go through more extensive training in order to address this.

Council Member John Thomas mentioned concerns about the impact of traffic stops for low-level offenses.

“Stopping someone for a defective taillight causes stress and trust issues,” Thomas said. “Is there any way of citing a vehicle without actually stopping a vehicle and initiating that stop?”

Matherly suggested a voucher program that has seen recent success in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Under that program, individuals receive a voucher to go fix the taillight for free rather than being ticketed. A woman in the audience exclaimed, “alright,” in approval of the proposed program, startling Matherly mid-speech.

Mayor Jim Throgmorton said he would like to see the department consider better ways of communicating in instances of language or cultural differences, citing the challenge posed by a growing Sudanese and Congolese community, with many individuals who speak Swahili, Arabic or French.

A draft of a city council resolution banning racial profiling will be presented at a future council meeting. Although racial profiling is already banned in city code, the council and police department said it was important to reiterate their solidarity over the issue.

“We are making this resolution to make sure it’s clear that racial profiling is not okay,” Council Member and Mayor Pro Tem Kingsley Botchway said.

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