Beyond Iowa Nice: Bridging the Divide Between Police and Community

Jul 29, 2016

Recent videos of police shooting unarmed black men and recent shootings of police officers have led to increased unrest between two groups already used to tension.

On this edition of River to River, Joyce Russell hosts the final conversation of Iowa Public Radio’s “Beyond Iowa Nice” series by bringing black Iowans and police together to talk about what can be done to ease tensions between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve. 

People have a reason to be seriously concerned about the way African Americans and other people of color are being treated by law enforcement in this state. - Jessica Welburn

Ronnie Hawkins lives in Des Moines and recently filed a complaint with the Des Moines Police Department after her two sons were stopped by police.

“The police officers asked for their ID, for both children. They wanted to know where they’re going, where you’re coming from, do you live in this neighborhood, who does this car belong to,” she says. “They didn’t tell them why they stopped them; they didn’t tell them anything.”

The police responded to her complaint by sending a letter citing no wrong doing on the part of the police.

“I was told there was a summer enforcement team that was looking for guns and drugs, and they would be stopping people all summer,” she says. “But it just so happened that two of those stops were my sons, the other was my daughter and her friends, then another stop was a friend of mine. How could that be that I know of three stops, and they’re all African American and have been profiled? Stopped for no reason.”

Waterloo Police Chief Daniel Trelka is aware of the lack of minority officers and the resulting mistrust of the public when a white officer pulls over a black citizen. He says one of the things law enforcement agencies across the state can do to increase trust is to be better at explaining why they are making a traffic stop.

“When we do have contact with people in situations like this, we need to explain to them better why we’re having contact with them,” says Trelka. “If they match the description of a suspect we’re looking for, we need to explain that and articulate it very well.”

Also during the conversation, guests delve into statistics on minority representation within Iowa’s police departments and talk about the state’s arrest and incarceration rates, including data that shows while African-Americans make up just 3 percent of the state’s population, they make up 25 percent of the state’s prison population.

“Even though there’s a gap nationwide between black and white incarceration rates, it’s significantly higher in Iowa,” says Jessica Welburn, assistant professor of sociology & African American studies at the University of Iowa. “People have a reason to be seriously concerned about the way African Americans and other people of color are being treated by law enforcement in this state.”

Guests on this program include: Waterloo Police Chief Daniel Trelka; Jessica Welburn, assistant professor of sociology & African American studies at the University of Iowa; Erica Johnson, advocacy director for the ACLU of Iowa; Ronnie Hawkins, Des Moines resident and CEO of Cultural Spice Catering and Company; Matt Vance, Des Moines resident who works at EP2 Electrical Power Products; and Katie Huerter, of the American Friends Service Committee.