Advocates for Social Justice detail recommendations for citizen review board in Cedar Rapids

Published: Jul. 27, 2020 at 10:40 PM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - The Advocates for Social Justice, the group leading recent protests and calls for change against racism and racial inequity in Cedar Rapids, outlined their specifications for a citizen review board on Monday, while advocating for their inclusion in the decision-making process for the board’s establishment.

Among their 11 recommendations, the Advocates for Social Justice state the board should have the powers to issue formal and binding reprimands for police misconduct, initiate investigations and subpoena officers as part of that process, and hire and fire the police chief.

The group developed this framework after conducting research into already established citizen review boards (CRB) across the country and their practices, along with interviews with people it characterized as “leading experts with experience in developing and overseeing CRBs,” including the general counsel to the City of Oakland Police Commission and leaders from the NAACP and the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, or NACOLE.

The announcement follows the City of Cedar Rapids’ decision in early July to stop participating in discussions with the Advocates for Social Justice regarding the group’s seven stated demands, one of which is the creation of a citizen review board to investigate alleged officer misconduct and uses of force by officers.

“I believe the purpose of those meetings was to fully understand the demands. We have had those discussions and council has taken action,” Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart said in an email from July 10, when he informed the Advocates for Social Justice that he, City Council Member Dale Todd, City Manager Jeff Pomeranz, and Police Chief Wayne Jerman did not plan to take part in additional negotiation meetings.

While the city council committed on June 19 to support the establishment of the board and the Advocates’ other demands, the city later said it would use its own staff to gather community input and make recommendations on what the board would look like and how it would function. That process is expected to take 90 days, beginning in mid-July.

“The Citizen Review Board will impact the entire community, so we want to be sure it is developed with input from our entire community,” the City notes on the comment form on its website soliciting public input for the board.

However, the Advocates for Social Justice said the City is losing valuable time with this process.

“Black Americans in this country cannot afford to wait any longer for the kind of police reforms that we need because this could be the difference between life and death,” said Advocates for Social Justice member Stacey Walker, who also serves as a Linn County supervisor.

In the 17-page research brief released Monday, the Advocates for Social Justice made the case for why they need to be at the table in these discussions. They argued they are the appropriate group to represent people of color in this process, having already done the legwork and research into citizen review boards and cemented themselves as leaders in the social justice movement in Cedar Rapids.

Walker, Advocates for Social Justice Co-Founder Tamara Marcus, Circe Stumbo, and Anne Harris Carter are listed as the brief’s primary authors, with contributions coming from other ASJ members as well.

“The process selected to establish the CRB sets up the likelihood that the CRB will carry through on its functions. Nuanced decisions will need to be made about the system’s infrastructure. The process used to make those decisions will set the stage for the ongoing process of racial reconciliation in Cedar Rapids … or not,” they wrote in the brief.

In the first part of the brief, the Advocates said the City of Cedar Rapids’ decision on whether to center the citizen review board’s planning and design around race is crucial to the board’s future success, seeing as the purpose of the board is to provide oversight to law enforcement agencies.

“ASJ calls for a CRB in Cedar Rapids in order to ensure that people of color — who currently are grossly overrepresented in stops, arrests, and incarceration — have an independent body to go to with complaints, whom they can trust will provide a fair and insightful review of the actions and the complaints,” the Advocates for Social Justice wrote.

However, the brief also notes that keeping race at the center of these deliberations can be difficult, in part because of the challenging conversations it would necessitate, so it advocates for safeguards to maintain this focus, such as the use of a mediator with an understanding of race and racism in the United States.

“While the design specifications for the CRB are consequential, even more important are the signals sent by City and community leaders about their willingness to name and address the difficult root causes of racial disproportionately and the wide range of feelings of vulnerability, loss, and anger across the community,” the brief said.

“It’s going to be uncomfortable. There’s going to be growing pains. But the sooner that we start that hard work, the sooner we can get this stuff accomplished,” Marcus said.

Advocates for Social Justice member Amara Andrews said the city’s choice to seek input from the entire community, instead of focusing on collaborating with groups like theirs, perpetuates the same race-related issues they’re trying to change.

“To create a citizens review board without keeping race at the center defeats the purpose. I mean, the whole reason we need a citizens review board is because of how race plays into policing and the biases that exist in policing,” Andrews said.

“The best people to offer advice and insight on how to change these things are the very people who are being persecuted by them: Black and brown people,” Walker echoed.

As part of their recommendations, the Advocates for Social Justice advise the citizen review board be gender-balanced and made up of 11 members, at least half of whom are people of color and all of whom are residents of Cedar Rapids. Board members would serve three-year terms, with a two-term limit.

Nine of the members would be nominated by previously appointed board members, while the other two would be nominated by the mayor, with all 11 confirmed by the city council.

The brief does not suggest who would nominate the initial 11 members, though Walker said the Advocates for Social Justice would be willing to formulate that answer with the city if they’re provided a seat at the negotiation table.

According to the recommendations, the board would be able to issue legally binding reprimands for proven instances of officer misconduct within the police department, with those decisions only able to be overturned by a city council vote.

The board would also be able to initiate its own investigations, not just be limited to investigating complaints filed by citizens, and would have access to witnesses and police documents and subpoena powers. Investigations’ findings would be made public upon completion. The board would also be able to ask other groups, such as the Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commission, for assistance in investigations.

The aforementioned powers would give the Cedar Rapids citizen review board much more authority than the Iowa City Community Police Review Board, the only other CRB in the state. The Iowa City board can only investigate claims that are initiated by a citizen complaint, and the police chief can ignore its recommendations. It also lacks subpoena power.

“If we are really trying to start to address these systemic issues within police reform, within policing, within law enforcement, then it does need to have that power to do so,” Marcus said.

The Advocates for Social Justice additionally recommend the citizen review board receive public quarterly reports from the police chief on police stops and arrests, including breakdowns by race and ethnicity; receive the results of completed internal Cedar Rapids Police Department investigations into officer misconduct and use of force cases “in a timely manner”; and have resources to support its work, which they said include paid staff, independent legal counsel, training, and communications support.

The brief does not include estimates for how much these resources would cost or note where the funding would come from to pay for them.

“Until we’re able to understand how many individuals will outfit this citizens review board and the exact authorities and powers are enumerated, it’s really hard to know exactly a figure,” Walker said.

Marcus said the Advocates for Social Justice emailed the recommendations to the Cedar Rapids City Council and Mayor Brad Hart on Monday. The group said it has a meeting scheduled with the city’s Community Development & Planning Department on Tuesday morning, made at the city’s request.

KCRG-TV9 reached out to the entire city council and asked if they had seen the recommendations and if they’d be supporting them. Hart, Scott Olson, Scott Overland, and Ann Poe responded by Monday night and all said they were still reviewing the 11 recommendations.

“I will definitely review that research, but I will not be in a position to say what I support until our entire research is complete and our citizens, including ASJ, have had a chance to provide input. We all have the same goal of establishing a citizens review board that is open, effective and representative,” Hart said in an email.

Later Tuesday, council members will hear a presentation on the public engagement process to establish an independent citizens review board during the regular council meeting at 4 p.m., according to the meeting agenda.

According to a news release from the Advocates for Social Justice, the recommendations have garnered nearly two dozen endorsements, many from leaders in the criminal justice reform field, including Phillip Agnew, a criminal justice reform activist, Evelyn Carter, a social psychologist and racial bias expert, and Emily Galvin-Almanza, the founder of Partners for Justice.

The Advocates for Social Justice said they have formed other subcommittees to address their other six demands, which include the decriminalization of low-level marijuana crimes, the abolishment of qualified immunity for police officers, and imposing strict body camera provisions for officers.

Marcus said the way the City of Cedar Rapids addresses the call for a citizen review board will serve as a litmus test for how truly committed it is to change.

“The sooner that we all realize that, that we need to do things differently — and that’s not a bad thing,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for us to do better.”

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