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Des Moines City Council Passes Ordinance That Bans Racial Profiling

Black Lives Matter demonstrators lie face down on Grand Ave. outside of Des Moines City Hall on June 6, 2020 as part of a protest against police violence and the killing o George Floyd.
Grant Gerlock
IPR File
Black Lives Matter demonstrators lie face down on Grand Ave. outside of Des Moines City Hall on June 6, as part of a protest against police violence and the killing of George Floyd.

The Des Moines City Council has passed an anti-racial profiling ordinance nearly two years after the first version of the proposal was introduced.

The ordinance prohibits racial bias in traffic stops and other police actions, bans pretextual stops based on race and requires training on implicit bias and de-escalation techniques. The council approved the measure unanimously on its second and final readings Monday.

It includes language that incorporates some demands made by civil rights activists and Black Lives Matter protesters, but groups that negotiated the ordinance and people who commented during the virtual meeting said the law lacks community involvement in the investigation of police misconduct and specific disciplinary measures for officers who violate the anti-bias policy.

Council member Connie Boesen said the ordinance is a first step.

“I know there’s a sense of urgency to this work and I understand that at times it may seem that we are standing still and not doing enough,” Boesen said. “I support this ordinance as a starting point but we all need to do more and we all need to look for change. This ordinance alone will not solve all the inequities of our city, our state or even our country.”

Passing the measure took on more urgency in the wake of ongoing protests against police brutality. Betty Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP, said a “duty to interfere” provision was added to the final proposal. It requires police officers to step in if they see another officer use unreasonable force, “which means if an officer has their knee on the neck of someone gasping for air they should interfere.”

Andrews, who negotiated the alliance with other civil rights activists in a coalition called the Community Alliance, said it is “not perfect, but it is a good start.”

Before the council approved the first reading of the ordinance on June 8, the Alliance had called for the proposal to be withdrawn so they could negotiate additional language on police accountability.

The final version partially addresses their demands by adding a committee that will review policing practices. The Community Policing and Code Enforcement Policy and Practice Review Committee will study enforcement data to reveal racial disparities. But the groups had also pushed for a Community Review Board with authority to investigate specific cases of police misconduct. That was not part of ordinance.

“Instead, we are getting a policy and review committee and one that doesn't have very much power at that,” the ACLU of Iowa said in a statement. “Five of the members would be people who are already in city-connected positions and just four would be community members. We think it should be the other way around.”

Jessica Little was one of several people who commented to the council that the ordinance only goes halfway to stop pretextual stops, where an officer pulls a person over for a minor traffic violation in order to search for drugs. By specifically prohibiting discriminatory pretextual stops, she said the ordinance leaves room for officers to sidestep complaints.

“Even saying they can’t pull people over for racial profiling, they can find reasons to pull people over,” said Little, adding that the council should simply ban all pretextual stops.

The Des Moines City Council took a first step toward meeting another demand from the Community Alliance and Black Lives Matter protesters: to make marijuana the lowest priority for law enforcement.

Council members passed a resolution adopting that position, citing an ACLU report that found a Black person in Iowa is seven-times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person.

“We know that there’s a significant racial disparity in the way our marijuana laws are enforced,” said council member Josh Mandelbaum who co-sponsored the resolution. “Addressing the way we enforce our marijuana laws is one of the small ways that we can move towards racial justice and a community that works better for everyone.”

The resolution creates a task force that will study potential changes in state and local laws to decriminalize marijuana. The group will report its recommendations back to the city council in October.