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Iowa City City Council Considers Next Steps Following Review Of Tear Gas Use Against Protestors

Matt Alvarez
IPR file
Protestors in Iowa City march along a highway while protesting racial injustice and police brutality.

The Iowa City City Council is considering how to move forward, following an independent review of law enforcement officers’ use of tear gas against racial justice protestors in Iowa City last summer. The lengthy report conducted by the California-based OIR Group concluded that the “aggressive” use of force was “unprecedented in recent memory." The review includes 39 recommendations for the city and its officers, which local leaders hope to get public feedback on.

“We need to learn from this incident: what happened, why it happened, how it happened and how can we do better? And do it differently in the future,” City Councilmember Susan Mims said a work session Tuesday.

There was swift public backlash last June when officers used tear gas and other less than lethal munitions against a group of protestors as they marched down Dubuque Street in Iowa City and towards an Interstate-80 interchange.

The protestors were intent on reaching the highway and blocking traffic, but were stopped by officers who deployed tear gas, flash bangs, pepper spray and stinger grenades, which contain small rubber pellets.

“This was the first time in recent memory that Iowa City law enforcement had used tear gas, pepper balls and flashbangs on protestors exercising their First Amendment rights,” reads the 80 page report, which was released last month. “The outrage that swiftly followed this incident further energized the protests in Iowa City.”

The protest on the evening of Wednesday June 3 was the latest in a series of rallies and marches organized by the local grassroots group Iowa Freedom Riders, events which attracted hundreds of people protesting racial injustice and police brutality in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.

The use of tear gas that night became its own rallying point for activists and drew condemnation from city officials, who marched with protestors the following night, successfully reaching I-80 without resistance from law enforcement.

City Councilmember Janice Weiner acknowledged the harm done to protestors and emphasized that First Amendment rights must be protected.

“None of this diminishes the harm and the trauma done to any of the protestors. The focus here is on the actions of police but it does not diminish what was done to the protestors,” Weiner said.

Questions about the use of force and the decision-making of the law enforcement agencies involved persisted for months.

Based on a lengthy review of security camera and body camera footage and interviews with city officials, law enforcement officers and protestors, the OIR report determined it was the Iowa State Patrol that had primary jurisdiction over the event.

ISP made “key decisions” to block the marchers from reaching the highway on June 3 and took steps to enforce that decision, though the Iowa City Police Department played “the dominant role in the actual force deployments”, according to the review.

It was a role that ICPD was largely unprepared for, according to the report authors.

“ICPD reported that it had not deployed less lethal munitions for crowd control in over 30 years, nor had they engaged a crowd of the nature and magnitude of June 3,” the report read. “At all levels, those that we spoke to stated that, from a training standpoint, the officers were largely unprepared for June 3 and the scale of the demonstration and protest activity as a whole.”

The Iowa State Patrol declined to participate in the review.

The report lists 39 recommendations spanning police training, conflict de-escalation and communication. Mayor Bruce Teague says the city wants feedback on how or whether to incorporate the recommendations into city policy.

“What tools in your toolbox do you want have? And that’s where I believe certainly the community can weigh in but I want our police department to weigh in as well,” Teague said.

At the meeting Tuesday, the council directed City Manager Geoff Fruin to work with Police Chief Dustin Liston and other staff to review the recommendations and provide their own feedback.

The city has since banned the use of tear gas against peaceful protestors, though the report recommends more clarity is needed to establish when less than lethal munitions would be permitted and how to determine that a protest is no longer peaceful.

Separately, the city is seeking public input on its Preliminary Plan to Restructure the Police, another step taken in the wake of last summer’s protests.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter