Letter: Those affected by police violence have had no voice in Iowa City’s police reform planning

Protesters marching in Iowa City on Aug. 28, 2020. — Anjali Huynh/Little Village

By Nicholas Theisen, Iowa City

Why aren’t we centering the victims of police violence?

This was the question I was left with after Tuesday night’s Iowa City Council meeting, in which council approved a Law Enforcement Liaison Partnership Agreement with CommUnity and Foundation 2, organizations that provide crisis services to the local area. City Manager Geoff Fruin noted this agreement was based in his preliminary plan to reform the Iowa City Police Department (ICPD), leaving me with the added question of why this move is being made even before that plan has been submitted for public feedback, much less before council has formally approved it. In this historic moment, when there is the opportunity to diminish the role the police and policing play in our community, the city manager seems hellbent on expanding ICPD’s overall footprint, even going so far as to push aspects of his plan through even before the city has come to a comprehensive understanding of what role cops should have going forward, if any.

When Councilor Janice Weiner asked CommUnity and Foundation 2 representatives how the people being serviced feel about the possibility of officers being present at the scene, they deflected. At no point were the voices of those affected by police violence brought into the conversation, perhaps because they and council know full well that people with disabilities, in drug-related or mental health crises, or generally in distress would feel at best ambivalent about having law enforcement present in their roughest moments. Those in crisis know that “making the scene safe” for nonprofit actors to respond to their needs often comes at their expense. Their safety always seems to be the lowest priority when it comes time to make policy decisions.

Protesters on Dubuque St. retreat as law enforcement officer fire tear gas on June 3, 2020

This development comes swiftly on the heels of an OIR Group report released in a news dump last Friday that critiques ICPD’s response to protesters on the night of June 3, when a confluence of Iowa City Police, Johnson County Sheriff’s Deputies, University of Iowa Police and Iowa State Patrol used tear gas, flash-bangs and pepper balls to “disperse” a crowd of a few hundred. This dispersal, from the perspective of those who were the targets of said aggression, felt far more like an act of terror. The ICPD officers interviewed for the report never even considered the possibility of negotiating with protest leaders or simply refraining from using force. One telling exchange between an ICPD representative and the OIR authors makes clear that in their minds it was only ever a question of how violent to be.

[ICPD’s] strongest defense of use of gas was that it obviated the need to confront the crowd by other means — specifically the batons and shields with which their frontline officers were equipped. They took some measure of pride in the lack of arrests and reported injuries and felt that the criticisms had been based on an incomplete characterization of the dynamics on Dubuque Street. (p. 42)

But the OIR report actually rejects this logic:

The problem with ICPD’s proposed framing is that it takes as a presumption that force of any kind was justified. It assumes with questionable legitimacy that the requirements for declaring the unlawful assembly that legally predicated the force had in fact been satisfied. And it accepts that preventing the protestors [sic] from reaching the interstate was itself a goal worth engaging in acts of crowd control and deployment of munitions unprecedented in Iowa City’s recent history.

For as much as the OIR Group take ICPD to task, though, the report in no way reflects the opinions and feelings of those upon whom munitions were deployed in such an unprecedented manner. In fact, as chatter caught by the body cam videos the City released in September 2020 shows, law enforcement used so much ordinance on the protesters that they nearly ran out.

The failure to incorporate the victims of this assault once again seems to be Fruin’s doing. The city manager was solely responsible for choosing the organization that conducted the investigation and for, it seems, shutting out members of the Iowa Freedom Riders (IFR), who organized the June 3 protest. IFR weren’t even asked to participate in the investigation, even though they and their activities are mentioned several times in the report. Individual ICPD officers are cited at length in the report, calling into question its biases and the need to make sure law enforcement don’t appear too culpable in what they did. At one point (p. 26), the report says, “In the first recorded act of physical aggression, protestors on Dubuque Street threw munitions canisters back in the direction of the police.” It takes a pretzel twist of logic to somehow assert that using tear gas and stun grenades is not an act of aggression yet tossing back those same spent munitions is.

However, this convoluted framing makes some sense, if you consider it in the context of a pattern of disregard emerging out of the city manager’s office. As I’ve noted previously, Fruin seems to have almost completely disregarded public feedback in the crafting of his preliminary plan and is now pushing elements of that plan forward even before it’s been approved by council. Perhaps this move to get things done, before the broader public have had a chance to respond, is a response to how feedback to the plan so far has been overwhelmingly negative. It was the city manager who suggested to OIR whom to talk to, so IFR’s omission cannot possibly be a casual oversight. Given Mr. Fruin’s disregard for what the people have said they want in no uncertain terms, it’s a wonder he still has a job.

Iowa City Manager Geoff Fruin — official photo, City of Iowa City

Council appears to be a different matter. While so far mostly supportive of the city manager, on several occasions, Mazahir Salih has questioned the city’s priorities, Thomas has been consistently opposed to expanding ICPD’s footprint, and, as noted above, Weiner has called into question whom these programs are meant to serve and how. It seems high time for their fellow councilors to get on the side of the people who elect them, rather than one lone man with a demonstrated lack of concern for the people who are brutalized by his choices.

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