Residents talk policing, mental health
About 40 people gathered at Mercer Park on Wednesday evening to provide their feedback to Iowa City officials about improving community policing as it relates to mental health.
It was the first of six planned events covering different topics that officials will use to draft a plan to restructure the police department and improve community policing.
The city council voted, as part of a 17-point resolution on racial justice initiatives, to restructure the police department in June. It’s given itself until Dec. 15 to come up with a preliminary plan.
Before community members were asked to comment, guest speakers from two local organizations described their services and how they sometimes work with the Iowa City Police Department.
Becci Reedus, executive director of CommUnity Crisis Services and Food Bank, talked about how the organization started and how it has changed over time, adapting to the community’s needs. Several staff members who work as counselors in their Mobile Crisis Outreach program described their services for people needing emotional support and who may have thoughts of harming themselves.
People wearing face masks sit apart from each other while practicing social distancing during an Iowa City City Council Listening Post on community policing, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020, at Mercer Park in Iowa City, Iowa. (Photo: Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen)
Of the 600 calls for service made to the Iowa City Police Department so far this year that mentioned “mental impairment,” “suicide” or “abnormal behavior,” the Mobile Crisis Outreach program was cited as being part of the department’s response just 10 times, according to data provided to the Press-Citizen by the police department.
Records technician Rebecca Passavant said it is possible that the crisis program wasn’t cited but was part of more responses than just the 10, and that sometimes, because it is a small organization, there isn’t always someone available when police make the request for assistance.
Prelude Behavioral Services Chief Executive Officer Ron Berg spoke about the substance use services the organization provides and how a new facility in the county will provide another option for people who are in crisis who would be better served to receive specialized medical treatment than spend a night in jail or an emergency room. It’s expected to be completed next year.
Between 10 and 15 people then offered comments or asked questions about mental health services and the police. A majority expressed interest or complete support for decreasing or eliminating the need for officers to respond to mental health and substance use calls.
Alex Brownfield, of Cedar Rapids, speaks during an Iowa City City Council Listening Post on community policing, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020, at Mercer Park in Iowa City, Iowa. (Photo: Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen)
Alex Brownfield, a Cedar Rapids resident who is transferring to the University of Iowa next year, suggested the city adopt a crisis assistance program similar to one operating in Eugene, Oregon.
The Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets program, known by its acronym, CAHOOTS, provides mobile crisis intervention services. The responders are dispatched through a communications center that also coordinates police, fire and ambulance calls, according to its website.
Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague said he was aware of the program and considered it a potential model for Iowa City.
“It’s on the front of my list,” Teague said.
Gloria Hartley, of Iowa City, holds a sign reading, “We need mental health funds, not more guns,” during an Iowa City City Council Listening Post on community policing, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020, at Mercer Park in Iowa City, Iowa. (Photo: Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen)
While there appeared to be a shared opinion among the crowd that social service providers need more funding and police officers are not the best equipped to respond to someone experiencing a mental health crisis, there was concern that members in the crowd were not representative enough of the community.
Wangui Gathua, a coordinator at Nisaa African Family Services, suggested marginalized communities be included in the conversation and that more needs to be done to bring them to the table. As an African immigrant herself, she said her community members are fearful of the police.
“Somebody looking at this picture may say there are no Africans in Iowa City,” she said, describing the crowd. “I know there are; you know there are.”
When people in her community think about calling the police, Gathua said, they fear such a call might result in their son getting shot.
Wangui Gathua, a coordinator at Nisaa African Family Services, speaks during an Iowa City City Council Listening Post on community policing, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020, at Mercer Park in Iowa City, Iowa. (Photo: Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen)
“We get very negatively impacted by the relationship between our law enforcement and ourselves — even me, as a representative and being highly educated,” Gathua said. “It is still scary and traumatizing to work with our police.”
Iowa City Police Sgt. Andrew McKnight and Officer Colin Fowler briefly spoke, providing answers to some of the questions and also their thoughts on improving community policing.
McKnight said he thinks CAHOOTS’ approach could work in Iowa City, and he supported working more with social service workers.
“Anytime you can find a model where you provide the public with a higher level of training and education, I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” he said.
The next listening post will address how police serve special needs populations and will be held over Zoom on Sept. 22.
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