Letter: City Manager Fruin’s plan gives police more power, rebuffs Iowa Freedom Riders

Protesters in Cedar Rapids marched on July 18, 2020. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

By Nicholas Theisen, Iowa City

At the Dec. 15 Iowa City City Council work session, City Manager Geoff Fruin presented his office’s preliminary plan to restructure the Iowa City Police Department (ICPD), “Restructuring the Iowa City Police Department: A Preliminary Plan to Accelerate Community Policing.” The document includes a number of disparate items, including a puzzlingly large number of pages simply copied and pasted from other documents without context or any analysis to explain why they are there. Central to the document’s plan for the future of ICPD is a set of 36 recommendations for the city to adopt to “chart a path forward toward a more robust community policing model.” Taken individually, they appear to suggest a number of targeted, technocratic fixes to specific issues. Taken together, though, a rather disturbing pattern emerges, one that directly contradicts the entire reason why limits on policing are being considered in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

The protests primarily led by the Iowa Freedom Riders (IFR) over the summer of 2020 were quite consistent in expressing the desire to limit policing, preferably by defunding ICPD and diverting those funds towards a variety of poorly resourced social services. What Fruin’s office has produced is a plan that, while not necessarily increasing the number of sworn officers, does drastically increase ICPD’s footprint either through the addition of several civilian staff positions with cop-like powers or by increasing ICPD presence in and interaction with local social service nonprofits.

Recommendation number two, for instance, calls for an outreach specialist to be placed in Shelter House. Number three calls for a half-time Community Outreach Assistant. Four requests the creation of a marketing role in ICPD to advertise CommUnity’s Mobile Crisis Unit. Five calls for greater cooperation between ICPD and Cross Park Place as well as the soon to be completed Guidelink Center. Nine asks for the creation of a co-response team made up of law enforcement and the Mobile Crisis team. Eleven calls for a partnership with Iowa Public Health. Fourteen suggests ICPD’s Victim Services Coordinator engage in regular meetings with local service providers. Eighteen calls for the creation of a civilian Accreditation Manager. Twenty-three seeks to embed the Chief of Police more firmly in the Community Police Review Board (CPRB), presumably so Chief Liston can lead its members by the nose in a similar manner to the way the City Manager leads Iowa City’s councilors. Twenty-four calls for a liaison to do much the same with the Human Rights Commission (HRC). Twenty-seven recommends something like a county-wide CPRB in which, oddly, law enforcement would be entirely responsible for investigating complaints against officers. Twenty-eight calls for a law enforcement apprenticeship program. Finally, recommendation number 32 suggests the creation of a Public Safety Communications Professional to manage ICPD’s image and make the community more amenable to the substantial expansion of policing called for in Fruin’s plan.

These 14 recommendations together amount to the exact opposite of diminishing ICPD’s role in the community. In fact, should City Council enact each of these recommendations as written, it would constitute a kind of broad entrenchment of policing in all sectors of society unheard of in the department’s entire history. One could be forgiven for reading Fruin’s plan as a shifting of resources or redefinition of roles, but as “Funding Considerations” (section five) makes clear, the City Manager’s office anticipates needing to add millions of dollars to ICPD’s and related budgets in order to implement all these changes. This seems to result from a fundamental misunderstanding of what protesters were calling for over the summer and why.

Under the heading “‘Defund’ Model,” the report claims, “a significant reduction of the Department budget will necessarily require the elimination of sworn and/or civilian positions,” as if that were a downside. Whereas in reality, fewer cops and less policing overall were explicit IFR demands. It is, in fact, an upside of defunding. What Fruin seems to prefer instead is a preposterous scenario designed to antagonize both the left and right wings of the political spectrum: raise taxes to create more pseudo-cops. His cynical response to this historic moment is to use it as an opportunity to allocate even more money to policing, when what the protests in Iowa City and elsewhere in the country were calling for was to build out social services beyond law enforcement purview.

Nowhere is that cynicism more apparent than in the way the City Manager addressed some of the report’s more glaring omissions in his presentation. During the work session, he spoke with snide dismissal of the CAHOOTS framework currently implemented in Eugene, Oregon. This denigration seems to be an implicit response to IFR’s advocacy of it as a model for how to go forward. In fact, the city seems to be going out of its way to shut IFR out of the process. The report explicitly namechecks the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP and Black Voices Project (c.f. recommendation numbers 17, 20 and 25) yet nowhere mentions the very group that brought these issues to the fore and has consistently advocated for their consideration. This omission is especially curious in light of the HRC’s recent recommendation to council to create a non-voting seat for an IFR representative, so that they can engage with council more directly than the general public otherwise can. This formal recommendation was dismissed rather quickly during the council’s work session on Dec. 1, with little discussion of the substantive concerns raised in the HRC minutes of Oct. 27 concerning council’s “blind spots.” Moreover, multiple public comments in Appendix II of the report suggest the city work closely with IFR to establish reforms. Given how intimately they were previously in drafting the proposal for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, this oversight appears to be both intentional and malicious, a form of retaliation for genuinely holding city officials accountable.

Even if individual councilors are no longer willing to work closely with IFR membership, the wholesale rejection of the CAHOOTS model seems completely out of line both with the public comments included in the report and council’s own stated intentions in previous meetings and work sessions. On more than one occasion, councilors have spoken favorably of the CAHOOTS model and expressed a desire for some of the approach used in Eugene, another college town, to be implemented in Iowa City. By my count, at least eight public comments mention CAHOOTS by name and several more suggest something closely resembling it. Not a single comment appears to suggest anything like what Fruin has put together in this plan. So, given his snide dismissal of CAHOOTS in his presentation, the disconnect apparent in the report’s treatment of defunding models, his going against council’s stated wishes and this seeming rejection of public will, it makes me wonder whether this plan has any kind of meaningful constituency outside the confines of the City Manager’s office.

Even more frustrating than all this is the lack of any admission to there being larger, structural problems that need to be addressed, despite there being evidence already made public of possible systemic issues in ICPD. In August of this year, a federal judge publicly scolded Assistant Johnson County Attorney Jude Thaddeus Pannell and ICPD officer Travis Neeld for their role in racially profiling a Black man, Chris Kelly. To date, no Iowa City official has made any public statement addressing this injustice. Moreover, council recently passed an “unbiased policing” ordinance whose particulars were all already policy at the time Kelly was harassed by ICPD. When this fact was brought to councilors’ attention before the vote, they could do little but prevaricate, saying “this is just a start.” Now here we are with what one presumes to be an official proposal, yet it too fails to address how officers will be held to account when they violate the very policies that supposedly ensure residents of color are not discriminated against. This all feels like prelude to yet another, future incident when, once again, local officials will express their concern but do nothing meaningful to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

The Iowa City City Council should not only reject the City Manager’s proposal in its entirety but also provide him with specific, detailed guidelines, so that he and his subordinates don’t simply reproduce another plan completely divorced from both the reality of what’s needed as well as the preferences of the broader public. Mr. Fruin simply cannot be trusted to work through these issues on his own.

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