Just Voices wants input from 'Black and Brown' residents in study of Des Moines Police

A study to identify the best practices for research and data collection methods in law and code enforcement in Des Moines is underway.

A nonprofit organization, part of a movement to end racial profiling in the state, wants "Black and Brown" residents to make suggestions to the consultant analyzing the Des Moines Police Department and code enforcement.

“Please don’t miss the chance to be a part of the conversation to create more equity in the policing of Black and Brown residents of Des Moines,” stated Just Voices, an organization whose mission is to build a platform that educates, advocates and collaborates to end racially-biased policing in Iowa, in an email to Black leaders.

The city of Des Moines in March 2020 issued a request for proposal to study law enforcement and code enforcement and determine best practices for research, data collection methods and data governance. The project is expected to cost $84,945. Public Works LLC will carry out the work by the end of the year. The study is focused on data collection to "improve performance in fairly and impartially providing city services," including:

  • Review the city’s ability to collect data
  • Evaluate and quantify law enforcement and code enforcement interactions with the public and likely causes or contributing factors for any disparate outcomes of the interactions across community groups and protected classes
  • A detailed organizational and operational assessment of current code enforcement and police department law enforcement practices

Lori Young, communications director and Harvey Harrison, founder, of Just Voices. Photos courtesy of Just Voices.

According to the request for proposal, city data for race and ethnicity is missing in some instances, including:

  • The police department does not collect race and ethnicity data on police encounters that do not lead to an arrest.
  • The neighborhood inspection and code enforcement divisions of the Neighborhood Services Department also do not track race and ethnicity of zoning and code violations.

Just Voices tracks racial profiling, collects data and posts videos interviews with victims. Last month, Harrison met with the consultant about the study. He wants the consultant to hear residents' experiences with police and also their thoughts about police, city and community relations. In the email, Just Voices said the consultant wants to hear about strategies that have worked in the past to stimulate “positive change” in Des Moines and about positive changes that have “made the difference in actually moving" the Des Moines city council and police leadership toward the changes activists want.

According to the request for proposal, "public involvement" will be required, but no details or timeline for input have yet been released.

Racial profiling in Des Moines

In Des Moines, Blacks are nearly three times more likely to be stopped than whites for the same offense, according to Just Voices' findings. Several high profile racial profiling cases have occurred in Des Moines in recent years. Just Voices' website contains first-person accounts from several victims of racial profiling. The police department has also faced several recent controversies.

Activists in Des Moines have long called for changes in the police department, including the need for detailed data about police practices. The police arrested several activists during contentious city council meetings about spending for police department initiatives, community input and a police de-escalation training controversy.

Last June, Just Voices released a detailed report about the disparities it said it found in the arrests of people with marijuana charges. Blacks and whites use marijuana at the same rates, according to an ACLU study. Black make up 11.4% of Des Moines' population, but 30% of marijuana arrests, and an even higher disparity was found in the data for the police department's Special Enforcement Team, according to Just Voices. The organization used data from the police department, Polk County Sheriff's Department and the Iowa Department of Transportation. A Des Moines police spokesperson disagreed with the report, according to the Des Moines Register.

Des Moines passed the racial profiling ordinance, Unbiased Policing in June of 2020, which banned racial profiling and racially biased policing; mandated annual de-escalation, cultural diversity, cultural competency and implicit bias training; prohibited “discriminatory” pretextual stops and required employees who witness racial profiling to report the incident, among other requirements.

Just Voices, which has been collecting and analyzing police data since 2014, wants the police department to collect the following information on all traffic stops:

  • Race of the driver and passengers
  • The initial reason for the stop
  • Was anyone asked to exit a car?
  • Was anyone handcuffed or restrained?
  • Was anyone searched?
  • Was consent obtained for any search?
  • Was a vehicle searched?
  • Was contraband found?
  • Was a weapon drawn?

Harrison said the study is a step forward that "wouldn't have happened without the kind of pressure that we put on them."

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