Judge dismisses charges against Black man, saying he was targeted by Iowa City Police

Published: Oct. 19, 2020 at 10:07 PM CDT
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IOWA CITY, Iowa (KCRG) - Charges against a Black man in Iowa City last year have been dropped after a federal judge ruled the arrest was unlawful, and the officer was racial profiling.

Christopher Kelly, of Chicago, was walking to his aunt’s house from the Hy-Vee on Waterfront Drive when police received a call for a Black man who possibly had a gun. Officer Travis Neeld and the SCAT division waited and located Kelly. In newly-obtained body camera footage, Neeld could be seen waving Kelly to cross the street. That was when he stopped Kelly for jaywalking.

Neeld asked Kelly for his name, to which Kelly gave a false name and didn’t provide identification. Kelly reached for his wallet in his back pocket, which was when the first sense of distress came as Neeld undid the buttons on his service weapon and asked Kelly not to reach for anything unless he told him what he was reaching for.

Neeld continued to lecture Kelly about jaywalking and impeding traffic. That was when several other officers arrived and told Kelly to put his hands on his head. Kelly, confused, resisted the officers and was tackled to the ground. Neeld then tased Kelly several times while officers held him down.

Police did find an illegal gun on Kelly as well as marijuana, but federal Judge Stephanie Rose threw that evidence out and blasted the police actions, calling it a case of “walking while Black.” At one point, she said Neeld was not credible, and police needed more than a hunch to stop someone.

We showed the body camera video to Josh Booth, of Johnson County. He’s a Black father of four who doesn’t live far from where the incident happened.

“Chris, you know, waived at the officer like this when he went to grab him. That’s a reaction,” Booth said. “That comes from the years of hearing from your parents, your uncles, and aunties, the long list of things that have happened to Black people in America.”

Johnson County and federal prosecutors cleared Neeld’s actions as lawful. He is still on the force, even being moved after this incident to the role of Community Outreach Officer tasked with building a better relationship with the community.

“As much as the Iowa City police have been doing to get closer to the Black community, this video will just pull them that much further back,” Booth said.

Sara Riley, a civil rights attorney in Cedar Rapids, said the incident presents a legal issue for Neeld’s ability to do his job in the future, too.

“When you have a federal court judge saying this officer is not credible, every time he makes an arrest and the case goes to trial, he’s going to be cross-examined on the fact that the judge, Judge Rose, has said ‘you are not credible,’” Riley said.

Riley said it is rare for a judge to be so blunt in criticizing an officer’s actions as an example of systemic racism.

“Normally you hear a judge saying ‘racially-profiled,' or something, but to actually say he was arrested for ‘walking while Black,'" Riley said. “She made no bones about it. She just came flat out and said ‘this man was targeted due to his race.’”

Iowa City Police said Neeld did not violate any department policy. A spokesperson said several policies were changing but not because of this incident. In response to the Black Lives Matter movement, the department has updated several policies and is reviewing others around bias policing.

“I don’t think anyone would like some police officer to say ‘yes, come on, you can walk through’ and motion you to cross the street. So you cross the street and then arrest you for jaywalking when he motioned for you to cross the street,” Riley said. “I think most people would think that’s horrible.”

While Neeld is still patrolling the streets and the department is making policy changes to try and prevent incidents like this one, Booth said the city needs to do a better job of holding their officers accountable after watching this interaction.

“I feel like his demeanor, his tone, his aggressiveness is just blatant disregard for another man’s rights,” Booth said. “He didn’t see a family man, he just saw what, in his mind, could have been a felon in possession. That could have turned deadly because of his fear.”

KCRG-TV9 attempted to speak with the Iowa City Police Department, or other law enforcement agencies, about how a ruling such as Judge Rose’s impact their ability to proactively police. So far, those agencies have all declined a request for an interview.

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