Cedar Rapids Forum Sparks Dialogue on Race, Police Action

By Jim Malewitz, Reporter

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – There were plenty of whispers, eye rolls and even a few raised voices in the sanctuary at St. Paul's United Methodist Church on Saturday. But perhaps that's to be expected during a chat about race and police action.

For two hours on a humid afternoon, Cedar Rapidians had the chance to ask questions and express their concerns about how officers in their departments communicate with minorities – particularly African Americans – as they stop cars, issue citations or make arrests.

Earlier this year, a Gazette investigation found that African-Americans made up about 30 percent of the city's violent and property crime arrests in 2009 and 2010.

About 100 people showed up to the forum, "Fostering Understanding – racial profiling v. criminal profiling," organized by the Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commission. Though, at times, discussion became heated, Stefanie Robinson, civil rights investigator for the commission and moderator of the discussion, said the event provided a needed jump-start to a dialogue on race relations in the area.

"It was good beginning. This is the beginning of the journey," she said.

In front of a panel of area police chiefs, NAACP Cedar Rapids leader Dedric Doolin and Karl Cassell, head of the Civil Rights Commission, attendees had no qualms about expressing their grievances. Several African Americans in attendance said they had been racially profiled by area police.

"Why do police officers always assume that we're guilty when they come up to us?" asked one man, wearing a striped shirt.

"You all come with attitude," he said.

One man said he had been thrown down by police while requesting medical attention. Another said he was twice tased in front of his family when police mistook a red-tipped toy gun in his car for a semi-automatic weapon. Several people, including NAACP's Doolin, said they had been pulled over for for no reason other than "driving while black."

"We don't believe every officer operates that way, but when it happens one time, that's one time too many," said Cassell.

Greg Graham, Cedar Rapids Police Chief, said his department doesn't profile.

"The vast majority of time, we're responding to calls for service," he said. "There's no difference in how we police any section of town."

But, if someone feels mistreated, Graham said he would encourage that person to file a complaint with the department.

"If I've got an officer out there who is preying on any segment of the community, I want to know about it and do something about it," he said.

Doolin said that people often don't file complaints – either with police departments, the Civil Rights Commission, or the NAACP.

"Sometimes the process is overwhelming, or people are not comfortable with that," he said, suggesting that departments should make it easier to file complaints.

Graham said his department is taking several steps to help ease tension in the community and to monitor officers' behavior. Soon, a computer system upgrade will enable the Cedar Rapids Police Department to compile detailed statistics, like the race, gender and age of people in each officer's "self-initiated activity." The system would detect demographic patterns in the officer's responses.

Additionally, Graham and other area police chiefs said they would try to recruit more minorities. Currently, there are only four African Americans on the Cedar Rapids Police force, just one in Hiawatha and zero in Marion, they said.

"We doing pretty well in terms of gender, but we're not anywhere close to there in race," Graham said.

Several people in attendance suggested that communities form boards of citizens to review police action – an idea that the NAACP has endorsed across the county.

Graham said he is not opposed to the idea, but thinks it might be "a solution in search of a problem."

"I think we do a pretty good job policing our own," he said.

Several people said that it is not up to just the police force to address race issues in the community.

Cassell said community members should behave with civility when they are stopped by police – even if they feel affronted.

"Don't exacerbate the situation when you're stopped," he said. "If it causes us to get arrested, who wins? Not us."

The Civil Rights Commission plans to sponsor several more events about race relations in the future, Robinson said, adding that she hopes they will help the community address the issues together.

"We're not one side against the other," she said. "we're a community."
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