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Iowa City must do more to limit negative police interactions

Police should not be involved with air freshener enforcement or scolding our neighbors about bottle rockets

Jason Glass - Guest columnist

I’m a 20-year human resources professional and now teach college management courses and coach leaders. It tends to make me interested in individual behavior and choices. I watch my social media feed with that kind of eye, which is fascinating and often frustrating.

A clear example was June and July 2020. As protests over the killing of George Floyd were taking place in Iowa City, I saw angry posts about the role of police. We needed fewer police interactions, they railed, because far too often those interactions escalate, particularly when involving people of color. A few weeks later around July 4, many of the same people were outraged by their neighbor’s fireworks, now lamenting why the police were not putting an immediate and forceful stop to this activity. We need more police interactions, they railed, because these loud noises were unacceptable. I saw many similar comments about having police enforce mask wearing by individual residents.

Police interaction is a complex issue, but one place to start is examining what laws “we the people” demand be passed through our elected representatives and enforced when we call on police to intervene. We have a lot of work to do in building trust between residents (particularly BIPOC communities and individuals) and law enforcement.

Let’s each start by questioning when police are really needed and limiting unnecessary negative interactions. We cannot outsource our relationship-building to law enforcement. We cannot defer difficult conversations with our neighbors to armed officers and expect police interactions with the public to be more positively perceived.

“Pretext” stops can sometimes uncover more serious crimes, but is that occasional benefit worth the number of negative interactions, ranging from inconvenience to tragedy?

This past week has presented more national incidents that raise similar questions. Before Daunte Wright was discovered to have an outstanding warrant, he was reportedly pulled over for expired tags (essentially late in paying your taxes) and/or air freshener on his review mirror (a pretty minor safety risk, at best). Are either of these worthy of a traffic stop?

Army 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario was pulled over in Virginia for not having a visible license plate. Yet it reportedly became visible once he pulled over. Shouldn’t that have ended the encounter? He was released with no charges or citation after being pepper sprayed by two officers with guns drawn (which was clearly excessive).

In Iowa City, charges were recently dismissed against a Black man who was originally detained for jaywalking. Yes, these “pretext” stops can sometimes uncover more serious crimes, but is that occasional benefit worth the number of negative interactions, ranging from inconvenience to tragedy? I find it hard to argue that it is.

While we rightfully express outrage over these incidents and demand change, it’s also important to keep an Iowa City perspective. We should not judge Iowa City officers based on what happens in Virginia any more than we should judge Iowa City protesters based on what happens in Portland. We should, however, be proactive to assure these incidents do not happen in Iowa City.

Iowa City has already taken steps to limit non-safety related stops and de-prioritize minor drug offenses. There is more to do, but we should also recognize progress.

I’ve known and served with many law enforcement officers. They have been overwhelmingly conscientious people performing a vital role in our community. We expect them to intervene in dangerous situations to protect us and our neighbors. We expect them to investigate, and hopefully prevent, violent crime between residents. Surely, their time and effort is too valuable to be used for air freshener enforcement or scolding our neighbors for lighting bottle rockets a couple days a year.

However you feel about my thoughts above, I hope you can agree that these issues are complex and solutions to complex issues don’t fit on internet memes or 280-character Twitter posts. I encourage you to get engaged by having longer, nuanced conversations. We welcome anyone to join in our monthly Human Rights Commission meetings and there are numerous other opportunities to participate in dialogue. I look forward to hearing from you and seeing you there.

Jason Glass of Iowa City is vice chair of the Iowa City Human Rights Commission and past member of the Iowa Department of Human Rights Board.

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