Activists Making Progress In Effort On Des Moines Racial Profiling

Photo from recent Des Moines City Council meeting

Guest op-ed from Lori Young, President of JustVoices and a resident of Des Moines.

It’s been going on for decades in Des Moines, racial profiling that is. And for decades, different people and organizations have attempted to bring it to light and stop it, with little success.

I began fighting racially-biased policing in my hometown of Des Moines in the Fall of 2014, shortly after Michael Brown was gunned down in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri. As a mother of two young Black men, I was naturally concerned for their fair treatment by law enforcement. So, I became part of a group of social and community activists at Iowa-CCI. We later named ourselves the Racial Justice Team. Working together, we met dozens of victims of racial profiling.

Black people told us their stories of being racially profiled by police in Des Moines and surrounding suburbs while driving. In 2018, I met Harvey Harrison, a retired attorney who had been studying the issue for years. It was a newfound and passioned-filled purpose for his life. Harrison joined forces with Iowa-CCI and shared his findings of over 80 interviews and data on arrests and bookings, in relation to police stops of black and brown people.

During this same time, public officials, including the Des Moines Police Department (DMPD), denied that Des Moines had a problem with racial profiling. When asked to explain that answer, the police pointed out that few complaints were being filed by people claiming to have been racially profiled.

That was true; few complaints were being filed. When asked, people who were profiled explained why they were not filing complaints. Among the reasons were (A) they didn’t know they could file a complaint or how, and (B) filing a complaint would be useless because police never find themselves guilty of any misconduct.

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This disconnect between the lived experience of black people in Des Moines and the denial of public officials was mystifying. He said vs she said. What could data reveal, though?

Research of Des Moines policing was done independently over a five-year period from January 1, 2014 through December 31, 2018. By filing requests for information under the Iowa Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), three sets of data on the DMPD was obtained:

  1. DOT records on citations issued by DMPD.
  2. Polk County Sheriff records on bookings made by the DMPD.
  3. Case disposition records from the Iowa Data Warehouse.

Based on the data, if stopped by the Des Moines Police Dept., black people are:

  • 3 times more likely issued a ticket
  • 4 times more likely to be arrested for possession of a controlled substance
  • 15 times more likely to be arrested for “interference with official acts”

…than if you are a white person.

Additionally, during any single stop, additional charges are often “piled on,” resulting in data showing that black people are more often charged with multiple violations.

Equipment Violations: A black person is more likely to be stopped for a minor equipment violation.

Once stopped, they are:

  • 4.8 times more likely to be issued a ticket
  • 5.5 times more likely to be arrested for some reason
  • 15 times more likely to be arrested for “interference with official acts”

The Disparity Is As Different As Black And White

The Community Demands Real Change

Since 2018, the efforts of various groups such as Iowa-CCI, NAACP, ACLU of Iowa, and individuals like Harrison, aligned collectively to focus on seeking a law to ban racial profiling in Des Moines. Along that journey, the efforts of these groups would eventually converge and align toward this common goal.

The community came together and developed a draft ordinance for the Des Moines City Council to consider adopting into law. That was November 2018. After nearly 18 months of public meetings and multiple revisions to wording, the Mayor and Council have recently agreed to bring the ordinance up for adoption.

An Ordinance Currently Under Consideration

In a March 9, 2020 City Council meeting, with over 125 community members of all races and ages in support, the first reading of the proposed ordinance occurred. Language written by the City Manager and City Attorney needed strengthening and clarifying, but it was a good first step. The Council agreed to continue to meet with representatives of the various organizations to continue to refine wording as the ordinance adoption process continues to a second and third reading.

After five years, we are seeing real progress, but the battle isn’t over. In good faith, the community continues to talk with city leadership in hopes of passing an ordinance prohibiting racial profiling by DMPD that has “teeth” and will be effective in practice. Stay tuned.


by Lori Young
Posted 3/27/20

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