‘A Black law and a white law:’ Black Fort Dodge residents fight longstanding ‘police harassment’

Black Fort Dodge residents say police racially profile and target them. They want the abuse to end. Now, they’re organizing to fight back.

FORT DODGE, Iowa. — Black Fort Dodge residents, who allege Fort Dodge police officers have long targeted them because of their race, hope their new local NAACP chapter will usher in changes that bring an end to the misconduct.   

“It’s like people don’t have any rights here. That’s how bad it is. I mean, it’s just like we’re living back in the Jim Crow era,” said Dessie Clayton, 60, a native of Fort Dodge. “You’ve got a Black law and a white law.”

Police Chief Roger Porter is retiring in April after six years as chief and 30 years on the force. A native of the city, population 24,871, he said the relationship between the city’s Black residents and the police force needs improvement but is better now than it used to be. Fort Dodge is home to about 1,750 Blacks, according to the decennial census

Fort Dodge police
Fort Dodge Police Chief Roger Porter. Photo courtesy of Porter.

“I know that when I was a young officer here there was a very bad relationship between the police department and the African American community,” he said. 

Fort Dodge police hq
Webster County Law Enforcement Center. Photo by Black Iowa News.

Lavera Altman, 37, a mother of five who was born in Fort Dodge, said she and her family members have experienced problems with the police. She also faced pushback when she tried to file a complaint. She said police eye Black youth and adults with suspicion. 

“I think that the relationship between the police officers and the Black people in the community is not good,” she said. “I feel like they are harassing Blacks.”

Black residents in 2019 revived the NAACP chapter to fight the violence affecting the Black community, bullying and inequities in the school system, problems with the police and hold health initiatives, but the coronavirus pandemic delayed their progress. Sherry Washington, president of Fort Dodge’s NAACP Chapter #4023, who attended high school with Porter, said they collected more than 30 letters in 2020 from residents who wrote personal accounts of “being harassed” by the police. 

Sherry Washington, president of Fort Dodge’s NAACP Chapter #4023, Photo courtesy of Washington.

The letters provided to Black Iowa News, mostly handwritten, some typed, cite alleged pretextual traffic stops, harassment, retaliation, illegal searches and property seizures and officers illegally entering Black residents’ homes and going through their cell phones without search warrants. 

The letter writers named problems with several police officers, detectives and an assistant county attorney. At least one former police officer of 12 years, Tom Steck, is on administrative leave from the Webster County Sheriff’s Department where he was a detective, said Chief Deputy Derek Christie. Steck is under investigation for allegations of “criminal activity or misconduct” brought by the police department last October, according to the Fort Dodge Messenger. The Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation is investigating, he said.

“Property has been taken. They’re getting in people’s cell phones without a search warrant,” Clayton said. “People are fed up.”

Altman said: “The first thing they do when they pull you over is grab for your phone so you can’t record nothing they’re doing to you illegally.”

Porter said without details about specific incidents identified in the letters, he couldn’t address the allegations, and he said he hadn’t been made aware of the issues. He said if police are chasing someone with an outstanding warrant, for example, police may have the right to go into a house without a warrant. 

“There’s so many variables,” he said. “There’s certain things law enforcement can do without a warrant.” 

He said if he was made aware of the allegations he would have addressed it. 

From high-profile cases like George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee, tension, fear and mistrust have overshadowed relationships between Blacks and the police in the U.S. 

It’s happening in Fort Dodge and other Iowa cities. Blacks in Des Moines have long sought police reforms in the face of police brutality lawsuits. Activists in Cedar Rapids marched and demanded law enforcement file charges against a white man who was recorded hurling a racial slur before stabbing a Black mother to death in a dispute between neighbors. 

Mending police-community relations will take both police and Black residents, said Porter, who joined the NAACP board in 2019 and has held community meetings with Black leaders and others to improve the communications. 

“We’re going to continue to work with those who want to work with us and try to persuade those who maybe have a bad taste in their mouth of law enforcement, but relationships are a two-way street,” he said. “Black residents have to want to have a positive relationship and be open to those relationships.”

Black religious life in Fort Dodge

According to the ACLU of Iowa, a private nonpartisan organization that works to advance civil liberties, people being questioned by the police have the right to remain silent and can refuse to consent to searches of themselves, cars and homes. Learn more. Iowa Code Chapter 8 and Chapter 9 describe the laws regarding arrest warrants and seizures. 

Several residents complained it is illegal for an assistant county attorney to be present when search warrants are administered. 

“That’s perfectly legal for him to do that,” Porter said. “I don’t know if people understand that.” 

It’s good to have a prosecutor at the scene if there is a “gray area” on a search, Porter said. 

“I do a lot of research and study the laws — what you can and can’t do as a law enforcement officer. It just boggles my mind that the layperson — they know what they know about law enforcement from watching CSI or NCIS,” Porter said.

The Fort Dodge Grain Silo Mural features a Black woman

After Floyd’s murder touched off a national uprising, many people expected police reforms would follow. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act failed, but some some elements were signed into law by President Joe Biden that apply to federal law enforcement agencies and could be reversed by future presidents, according to the Washington Post. But in Iowa, the legislation that followed Floyd swayed from banning police chokeholds and addressing police misconduct in 2020 to legislating higher penalties for protest-related crimes, “a more expansive” qualified immunity for officers and granting “civil immunity” to motorists who hit protesters in 2021. 

Five years ago, Porter said he began working with Black community leaders on community-building. They began holding regular meetings with different community leaders, organizations, the hospital, schools, corrections, probation and parole systems, he said. The meetings are going well and they want to raise awareness about it. Altman and Clayton said they were unaware of the meetings.  

Other problems remain. Porter said the department of about 40 officers isn’t diverse enough, and recruiting is difficult with stringent testing requirements.

“I talk to a lot of other law enforcement officers in other parts of the state and other parts of the country, and it’s very hard to recruit officers anymore — let alone officers of color,” he said. 

Community policing wasn’t practiced like it is today, Porter said. Officers’ primary job was investigating crime, with their “secondary” job being to build relationships, he said. 

“If you’re not building those bridges, and you’re not creating that inviting atmosphere, why would anybody want to come and help you do your job?” he said.

Clayton said she got the “run around” when she tried to file a complaint at the police department. She was told she’d receive the form by email, but she never received it and was unable to file. Clayton said they want residents to know their rights, what to do if they experience problems with the police and how to file complaints. 

“You might as well stand up because it’s never going to stop,” Clayton said.

Porter said when residents come to the department to fill out a complaint, a shift supervisor typically does the intake. An investigation will look at evidence, including body cameras and car cameras, if necessary. The complaint process isn’t online, and Porter said the department is behind on its technology.  

In addition to the NAACP, Washington also leads the Pleasant Valley Awareness group, which works for Black community betterment, including anti-violence, and issues like fixing bad roads, park improvements and more.

Fort Dodge Population

“Stopping the violence is the biggest need in our Black community right now,” she said. “We need the youth to know this is not who we are.” 

Times have changed, and today’s youth have different needs, she said. She expects to continue working on the issues with the new chief. She also expects a lot of participation from the community because people are hurting.

“People want answers,” Washington said. “People are tired. People want to see some results.” 

Washington plans to share an announcement soon about the upcoming NAACP meetings and plans.

Black attractions in Fort Dodge

Black residents said they find it hard to be optimistic about the changes they’re seeking in Fort Dodge. They had to fight for park improvements and a mural in the Flats, a low-lying area beneath Kenyon Road, near the Des Moines River where many Blacks have lived and two of the city’s three Black churches are located.  

Complicating matters, teens need activities and jobs, Altman said. She’s worried police simply want to lock up Black teens and give them criminal records. 

“The whole basic thing is that we’ve got two different sides here,” she said. ”There’s benefits for the white kids. There’s no benefits for the Black kids.”

Anthony Presswood, 45, owner of Fade Designz in Fort Dodge.
Life in Fort Dodge. Anthony Presswood, 45, owner of Fade Designz. Photo by Black Iowa News.

Washington agrees the community faces many challenges. It’ll take work to improve things, including the need to educate law enforcement about Blacks and the community, she said.

“Right now there’s the mistrust,” she said. “So we need to build a foundation.” 

Porter’s last day is April 5, and his replacement is a former captain Dennis Quinn. “Great strides” have been made in police relations with the Black community during the past 30 years, he said. 

“We’re definitely nowhere near where we should be or need to be,” Porter said. “I think it’s continuing to move in the right direction. It wasn’t broken overnight, and it’s definitely not going to get fixed overnight. It’s gonna take everybody involved.” 

Residents said they can’t wait decades for an end to the trauma, stress and inequities they’re experiencing throughout their city. Too many lives are at stake.

“We can’t keep sitting here waiting for them to do something,” said Clayton. “We’ve got to get up and do stuff on our own in order for our own kids to make it because we’re losing too much of our youth.”

Thought to be the largest mural in Iowa, The Fort Dodge Grain Silo Mural Project features several images, including the image of 79 year-old Black community leader Charlene Washington, a native of Mississippi who moved to Fort Dodge in the 1960s. Washington pushed for the teaching of Black history and the hiring of Black teachers in the 1970s, said her daughter Sherry Washington.

“My mom has always been a champion for Black history,” Sherry Washington said.

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