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Racial Justice

Majority Of Iowa City City Council Opposed To Police Abolition

A Philadelphia police officer demonstrates a body-worn camera being used as part of a pilot project last December.
Matt Rourke/AP
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When one Iowa City city council member raised the possibility of abolishing the police department during a meeting Tuesday, a majority of her colleagues spoke against it.

A majority of the Iowa City City Council made clear Tuesday that they’re opposed to the possibility of abolishing the police department. The discussion came during a meeting focused on reviewing recommendations for how the city could restructure its police department, and was prompted after one city council member published a newspaper opinion piece calling for the possibility of abolition to be “on the table.”

At a council work session Tuesday, a majority of council members made clear that while they’re still in the process of what they call “restructuring” the city’s police department, they have no plans of abolishing it. Mayor Bruce Teague said even the word abolish is politically “dangerous."

“I am not at all in agreement with utilizing the word abolish,” Teague said. “Now, in the process could there be some duties or some…things that they’re doing that might be abolished that is actually transitioned somewhere else? It’s restructuring.”

The discussion came during a meeting when the council was reviewing the city’s 246-page Preliminary Plan to Accelerate Community Policing. Developing the plan was among 17 actions the city committed to carrying out in order to address systemic racism in the wake of last summer’s protests.

Councilor Laura Bergus prompted the discussion on the possibility of abolition, after publishing an opinion piece in the Cedar Rapids Gazette on Sunday, arguing that modern policing condones violence and is premised on “dominance by force”, saying that the system “cannot be undone” and instead must be replaced.

“We made a commitment last June to restructure our police department. And what I see here is a lot of what has already been underway and already in the works and reinforcing things that we’ve been doing. Which is great,” Bergus said at the meeting Tuesday. “But I really just want to challenge us to consider, what did we think we were committing to last summer? And are we achieving that with this plan? And how are we going to measure that?”

“I think for myself, the goalpost is…established. It’s pretty far out there,” Bergus added. “But I really want us to be looking at, how else are we moving away from armed response to emergency situations?”

Councilor Susan Mims made clear that she is “diametrically opposed” to even raising the possibility of abolishing the police.

“From my perspective, human nature is such that we can never be without…a police force,” Mims said. “Now I am absolutely and totally open to the discussions we’re having and other suggestions and ideas that people can bring forth on how we…reduce the number of calls for service or reduce the calls that have to be responded to by armed officers.”

The city’s report outlines a commitment to community policing, which it defines as a “philosophy that seeks to address the root causes of crime and build confidence in police."

The document, first released last December, includes 36 recommendations the city can take to further its efforts, including a focus on preventing crime from happening and diverting calls away from armed officers in certain situations. The report also includes efforts that are already underway, such as continuing crisis intervention training for officers and seeking out community-led training opportunities.

The report does envision shifting some responsibilities away from armed officers, outlining a Crisis Calls for Service Continuum, which includes four approaches for how the city could handle calls for service depending on the perceived level of danger to the public: prevent crimes; divert calls to other professional interveners; co-respond with a team of police and other unarmed responders; and stabilize and connect, in which police are the primary responders.

City officials highlighted the work of the GuideLink Center, a recently opened mental health counseling and stabilization center, which offers a slate of services from walk-in consultations to units where those in crisis or in need of detox services can take shelter, instead of being taken to the ER or the local jail.

City staff also pointed to the work of the CommUnity Mobile Crisis Outreach Program, which dispatches mental health counselors to people in crisis around the clock in six eastern Iowa counties. Officials envision the service one day being integrated into the local 911 dispatch center, so those in crisis are served by a trained counselor rather than an armed officer.

But Iowa City Police Chief Dustin Liston told council members Tuesday that there are legal and practical limitations to what kinds of situations unarmed civilians can respond to. For instance, he said, under state law, in order to investigate car crashes or issue citations “you have to be a sworn officer."

“I do see a way where we can increase the responsibility of these people, but they still can't do police work. So they can do things that we might not traditionally consider police work and that's a fantastic idea,” Liston said. “But they don’t have…they can’t enforce criminal law.”

And he says some civilian service providers still don’t feel comfortable responding to violent situations.

“We've been using…Mobile Crisis Outreach and they won't respond to dangerous calls. And they shouldn’t. Because it's not safe to them,” Liston said.

The Mobile Crisis Outreach website notes that its services are not appropriate “when the situation needs immediate response such as a medical emergency or a current threat of violence” or “when the person in crisis does not agree to talk with mobile crisis counselors."

“[Civilians] may not be the best people to respond to a situation that could turn violent,” Liston added. “Unfortunately, those aren't always obvious.”

The city is accepting public comment on the preliminary plan through an online survey and is planning to hold additional public meetings in the summer to gather more feedback.

Activists with the local Black Lives Matter organization Iowa Freedom Riders, who protested repeatedly last summer and were instrumental in pressuring the city to take action to address systemic racism, have repeatedly criticized the city’s plan to restructure its police force. Members of the group have called for abolishing the police and argue the city’s efforts are in sufficient.

In a tweet Wednesday, the Iowa Freedom Riders Twitter account pledged that members of the group would be “back in the streets on Sunday” to protest the city’s plan.

“[N]o justice, no peace,” the tweet reads.