The Iowa City City Council voted Tuesday night to develop a plan to restructure the city’s police department, at the urging of local Black Lives Matter activists. Local officials described the effort as a “major” step towards reducing the city’s reliance on armed officers for nonviolent situations.
Iowa City officials are beginning to imagine what it would mean for unarmed, trained professionals, and not traditional police officers, to respond to nonviolent calls for service. It’s part of a series of efforts the city is undertaking meant to address systemic racial inequities, and reform a law enforcement system that disproportionately punishes people of color.
“I think we’re all aware that what we’re going to be doing is going to be major,” Mayor Bruce Teague said.
This vote follows days of sustained protests from local activists led by the group called the Iowa Freedom Riders, who have marched for miles through Iowa City, persistently demanding justice for black Americans and structural changes to local policing efforts that further structural racism.
At times, the demonstrators have disrupted traffic on major thoroughfares, and have marched to city councilmembers' private homes to demand their support, while chanting the name of George Floyd, the 46-year-old Minneapolis black man who was killed by a white police officer last month.
At Tuesday night’s special meeting, council members described a social safety net that too often allows people experiencing homelessness or mental illness to fall through the cracks, to an overburdened police force.
“One of the things that’s easy to forget is that there are a lot of duties that have ended up with police that were never intended to be there to begin with. Police were never supposed to be dealing with people with mental health issues. They were never supposed to be dealing with the homeless. They were never supposed to be dealing with a whole variety of things,” said Councilmember Janice Weiner.
Instead, they're beginning to envision a greater role for social workers and mental health professionals, instead of armed and uniformed officers, that too often use excessive and sometimes deadly force.
“What we’re trying to hit on here is to emphasize that the use of police who appear with force, those who are armed, we’ve identified as a significant impediment to the feeling of safety and trust," explained Councilmember Laura Bergus. “Having police just even on a scene of many, many, many types of calls is not necessarily setting individuals up for a peaceful and successful de-escalation.”
City Manager Geoff Fruin urged the council to thoroughly review current responsibilities of the police department and city statistics on the nature and volume of calls for service, which he says numbered some 70,000 last year.
Councilmembers intend to draft a plan outlining potential restructuring options by December 15, though they granted the process will likely be a long-term one, involving extensive research of other cities’ proposals and practices.
The council also approved a slate of other items at the urging of local Black Lives Matter activists, including a stricter ban on chokeholds than the state standard; a prohibition on the the use of tear gas, rubber bullets and flash bangs against peaceful protesters; and the establishment of a peace and reconciliation commission to “bear witness to the truth of racial injustice in Iowa City and carry out restorative justice."
The council also voted to mark June 19, or Juneteenth, as a city holiday, recognizing the ending of slavery in the United States.
And they voted to submit a letter to the county attorney asking to waive all charges against protesters with the Iowa Freedom Riders.
“I’m excited!” Teague gushed as councilmembers prepared to vote on the resolutions, at the end of the council’s four hour long special meeting. “We’re not all the way there. Don’t get me wrong. But this is amazing.”