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Activists Want More From Des Moines Ban On Biased Policing

Black Lives Matter protesters carry signs through Des Moines while marching to the Mayor Frank Cownie's house to demand racial equity in policing and changes to how police respond to protests.
John Pemble
IPR file
Black Lives Matter protesters carry signs through Des Moines while marching to the Mayor Frank Cownie's house to demand racial equity in policing and changes to how police respond to protests.

Last summer, protesters poured into the streets of Des Moines in anger and frustration over George Floyd’s death and soon organized around making changes in their own community.

On a Wednesday night last June, hundreds marched to the front lawn of Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie to pressure the city to adopt their demands. They carried Black Lives Matter signs and chanted “No justice—no peace.”

Cownie came out to talk to the leaders of the protest. Then, speaking through a bullhorn and flanked by officers in riot gear, he pledged to help advance several of their priorities including passing a city ordinance aimed at outlawing racial bias in the Des Moines Police Department.

“I support it. We’re gonna move it forward and we’re gonna put it on next Monday’s council,” Cownie said. It was passed into law later that month.

Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie addresses protesters in front of his home on June 3, 2020.
Grant Gerlock
IPR file
Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie addresses protesters in front of his home on June 3, 2020.

When George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, conversations about racism and policing were pushed to the forefront. In Des Moines, activists say the outcry over Floyd’s death pushed the city council to pass the biased policing ordinance. But one year later, many say they’re unsatisfied with the results.

“Democracy means that everyone is treated equitably, and we're not seeing that in Des Moines in terms of policing,” said Lori Young, a member of the racial justice team for Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement.

Iowa CCI had been working with other groups to advance the ordinance since 2018, Young said, and passing it felt like an achievement.

“It was a big deal and we were happy with that, but we're not done fighting for the things they left out,” or the parts that remain unfinished, she said.

The measure passed by the city council bans DMPD officers from using racial profiling or making discriminatory pretextual stops, such as stopping a Black driver for a traffic violation to search for drugs.

Doing those things was already against department policy, but Young said the ordinance put more policy changes into motion that would further address disparities in policing.

Those include putting less emphasis on marijuana enforcement and publicizing policing data to uncover racial disparities.

A portrait of Iowa CCI racial justice team member Lori Young with protest signs in the background.
Grant Gerlock
Lori Young, a member of Iowa CCI’s racial justice team, credits the killing of George Floyd with helping pass a ban on biased policing in Des Moines. “If it wasn't for George's murder, we probably still be fighting to get that signed,” she said.

The city council passed a resolution creating a marijuana task force at the same time the ordinance was passed. Last fall, that task force said Des Moines should make possession of small amounts of marijuana the police department’s lowest enforcement priority, but that recommendation has not been adopted.

City Manager Scott Sanders said the problem is that doing so would put the city at odds with state drug possession laws. The city is lobbying for decriminalization and is moving ahead with other recommendations from the task force, including raising awareness of what’s allowed under the state’s medical marijuana program.

But city council member Josh Mandelbaum believes police could be selective about making arrests, just like they are when enforcing parking and traffic laws.

“Our police department makes decisions all the time on what to prioritize and what not to with limited resources," Mandelbaum said, adding that right now there’s no consensus among council members on reducing marijuana enforcement.

According to an ACLU analysis of marijuana arrests in 2018,Iowa had the fifth highest arrest rate for people who are Black compared to those who are white.

Through her work with the Des Moines nonprofit Just Voices, Lori Young said she continues to hear accounts of racial profiling, but she said there isn’t enough transparency from DMPD toward people’s complaints. She said it erodes trust between Black residents and the police.

“When murders go unsolved because the Black community won’t talk to you, because they don't trust you, because they don't see you unless there's something going wrong, don't ask why,” Young said. “That’s why.”

Kameron Middlebrooks, chair of the Des Moines Civil and Human Rights Commission, agrees changing drug enforcement is important, and so is studying profiling and overpolicing in Black neighborhoods.

The ordinance directs the city to review police procedures for bias by way of a new Policy and Practice Review Committee. Part of that job is to determine how to collect data that can expose disparities and hold the department accountable when a pattern of profiling emerges.

“It's great to have the language that bans it, right? But without the data, it really means nothing,” Middlebrooks said. “We really can't create that real change until that data is able to be collected.”

Democracy means that everyone is treated equitably, and we're not seeing that in Des Moines in terms of policing.
Lori Young, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement racial justice team member

Sanders said gathering race data for police interactions is not simple, and that, as with marijuana, state policy is an obstacle for local action.

The easiest way to collect the data, he said, would be if racial identity was embedded in a person’s state-issued identification, like their driver’s license. Right now it’s not, and adding that information is not up to the city.

“And that's where we were hopeful that the state would step up and add to their database,” Sanders said. “That has not happened.”

Middlebrooks said the idea of embedding racial data in state issued IDs has been put before lawmakers, but has not yet found support. He is also chairing the city’s Policy and Practice Review Committee, and said the next step is to work with a consultant to find another way to gather race data on DMPD interactions.

“So what we're trying to attempt to do is find something that can at least mitigate that until we find a legislature friendly enough, you know, to pass the law that would require the (Iowa Department of Transportation) to collect that information,” Middlebrooks said.

Sanders said he knows there is frustration over the time it is taking to make these policy changes, but, he said, the city hasn’t given up.

“Because we are committed—both city manager's office and the police department—to continuous improvement both in our process and our relationships with the residents,” Sanders said.

For other signs of progress, Sanders points to the city’s initiative called Bridging the Gap, which aims to make programs more equitable across city government. As part of that, the city council recently passed incentives to encourage police officers and other municipal employees to live in Des Moines.

Sanders said DMPD policies were made public for the first time last year, and the latest graduating class at the police academy was the most diverse ever.

Still, activists plan to keep on the pressure, including groups like the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement who first organized on the streets last summer.

“At that time, our community, our city specifically, was highly mobilized around the issue of police violence, but we were not highly organized,” said Maté Muhammad, a field organizer for Des Moines BLM.

“The next time the world is mobilized, Des Moines is going to have a different experience,” he said. “And I think that the changes are going to happen more rapidly, both internally and within the system.”

Muhammad said people may not be marching in force like they did in 2020, but he said the racial justice movement in Des Moines has grown and in time, change will follow.

A previous version of this story identified Kameron Middlebrooks as president of the Des Moines NAACP, but he no longer holds that position. He currently serves as chair of the Des Moines Civil and Human Rights Commission.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa