Black Hawk County has a highly disproportionate number of African Americans in prison. That’s what five community leaders wanted to address last week in a guest column titled, “What Change Looks Like in Waterloo.”
The authors of the column—State Rep. Ras Smith; Rev. Belinda Creighton-Smith; community activist Ryan Stevenson; NAACP President LaTonya Graves; Social Action, Inc. President David Goodson; and community activist and Experience Waterloo Executive Director Tavis Hall—called for reforms in the Waterloo Police Department.
The reforms requested fall into the following areas: replacing the logo found on police cars and uniforms, creating an Empowered Citizens Review Board, decriminalizing minor marijuana offenses, codifying a “Duty to Intervene” policy for officers, and implementing a holistic approach to policing.
Though the reforms are for the police department, the call for action was made to the Waterloo City Council.
“I don’t think this is a decision that needs to be reserved for the police chief,” said Hall. “There are seven members of the City Council that are elected members by the citizens, and it is their responsibility to make this change. The problem is we’re going to a police chief that has to manage all of these different expectations and he’s not an elected official. Elected officials, that’s their job to manage everyone’s expectations and find the proper place.”
The City Council received a slightly modified version of the editorial, which included more details on the requested reforms. It stated that the Empowered Citizens Review Board would be “independent of WPD, with civic remedies for founded allegations of misconduct and establishing guidelines for review of body camera footage in accordance with state law.”
Use of the word “empowered” was intentional.
“We have a group that strongly wants to put in place a citizen’s advisory committee of law enforcement. And we know that advisory committees don’t work,” says Rev. Creighton-Smith. “We need something more than that. We need something that has teeth that can truly impact change.”
According to Rev. Creighton-Smith, ways to impact change include the Board’s ability to determine what is just in a given situation, the disciplinary action to be taken, and how those who have been harmed can be restored.
Not only should the Citizens Review Board be empowered, so should police officers. Empowered to intervene, that is. Similar to educators, lawyers, and doctors, an officer should “attempt to stop another sworn officer when force is inappropriately applied or is no longer required.”
Then there’s marijuana.
“It’s problematic that individuals find their cars being searched because an officer will allege that they smelled marijuana,” says Rev. Creighton-Smith. “That doesn’t happen on UNI’s campus. That doesn’t happen in white communities. But it does happen in communities that are black and brown.”
Which is why low-level or minor marijuana offenses should be decriminalized so as not to compound the mass incarceration rate for African Americans, she argues.
The implementation of holistic policing entails recognizing and overcoming racial bias training, hiring officers with metro-policing experience, providing social work and mental health services, and improving the police officers’ relationship with the community.
Hall realizes that these are fundamental issues that will take time to address. But regarding the disputed police logo, he adds, “Changing a logo takes almost no time.”
Or so one would think.
But the controversy of the Waterloo Police Department’s logo (or patch) goes back almost to its inception when, in 1964, then-police chief Robert Wright chose the Griffin, a mythological creature that was part eagle and part lion, to represent the department. Rev. Creighton-Smith remembers older relatives and teenagers she looked up to having issues with it—the issue being that it looks like the grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan logo. Since then, many in the Black community have wanted it removed.
For the first time, the Waterloo Police Department has sought to address the issue. While the controversial patch will remain as is, a secondary patch will be added. Both patches will appear on officers’ uniforms, though it is unclear what, if anything, will change on the police cars.
A call for a secondary patch design (they’re taking suggestions through August 30) has been posted on the Waterloo Police Department’s Facebook page. The initial posts—and the ones after it—have amassed nearly 750 comments, many against the change.
The community leaders do not feel that adding a secondary patch solves the problem. They want the logo replaced.
“Every one of the arguments that were made to keep a logo are the exact same arguments that had just been made in Mississippi on why they should keep the Confederate flag on their state flag,” Hall said. “That it’s a source of pride, that there’s a misinterpretation. But the same issue with the Confederate flag is the same issue with the patch. It’s the fact that you see folks with black skin that are offended by it and you insist on propping it up as a source of pride. That act in and of itself is offensive.”
Rep. Smith agrees. But the problem is magnified when applied to the police.
“The griffin, dragon, whatever people want to call it, closely resembles something tied to racism, abuse of people of color, and murder of people of color,” he said. “That’s what it resembles. And that is your introduction to your community.”
In addition to the submission of the letter to the Waterloo City Council, the authors of the letter have had separate conversations with council members. Now, they need to have conversations with members together and get the issues added to the agenda.
How the Council handles the logo could set the tone for how the remaining issues are handled.
“How can I trust that you’re really willing to make changes to policing our communities and mean it,” Smith said, “if you’re not willing to change the thing that first offends me?”
by Rachelle Chase
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