Des Moines mayoral candidates tackle policing, the CROWN Act, reparations during forum

How do Des Moines mayoral candidates feel about policing, the CROWN act and reparations for Black people? Black Iowa News asked them.

Editor’s Note: The Iowa Unity Coalition invited me to participate in its Des Moines Mayoral Forum held last week at the Machinist Hall in Des Moines. 

Three candidates, Connie Boesen, Denver Foote and Josh Mandelbaum answered questions from the coalition and panelists Maria Alonzo, Naomi Lawson and myself. The coalition, which works to build political power within diverse and underrepresented communities, and the Indo American PAC IA hosted the June 13 forum.

The coalition ultimately endorsed Mandelbaum.

“We believe Mr. Mandelbaum has shown a strong commitment to eliminating inequities for the diverse communities in Des Moines. He has been a voice for progressive policies that help working people. We support his vision for a better Des Moines by ensuring everyone has full access to city resources and services,” the coalition wrote in a press release.  

Des Moines mayoral forum
Iowa Unity Coalition’s Des Moines Mayoral Forum. From left: Top row: Mitch Henry, coalition chair; Patrick Bourgeacq Pinzón, moderator; Josh Mandelbaum, candidate; and Dana James, panelist. Bottom left: Connie Boesen, candidate; Denver Foote, candidate; Indo American PAC IA Chair Prakash Kopparapur and Maria Alonzo and Naomi Lawson, panelists.

Questions I posed to each candidate:

  • The Des Moines Police Department has been accused of racially-biased traffic stops and refusing to cooperate with community activists working to address it. What concrete steps would you take to improve the culture of DMPD, and do you support a Citizen Review Board?
  • What would you do differently to ensure marginalized residents’ voices are respected and heard at council meetings?
  • Several municipalities have supported initiatives like the CROWN Act, which prohibit hair discrimination, and reparations for Black people. Do you support the CROWN Act and reparations for Black people?

Below are the candidate responses: 

The Des Moines Police Department has been accused of racially-biased traffic stops and refusing to cooperate with community activists working to address it. What concrete steps would you take to improve the culture of DMPD, and do you support a Citizen Review Board?

Connie Boesen: “One thing we’ve had in place that we initiated . . . public works did a complete review of our some of our policies and some of our data retention. So we have started putting in place measures on that, what their recommendations were . . . I advocated for getting 21st-century policing. They are doing a review of all of our policies and procedures to see what are we doing well, what can we improve upon. We need to make sure that we have a safe community but we need to make sure we have a fair community. We passed the racial profiling ban. I think it was what, four years ago now. And so I think we’re making efforts to address the needs of all of our citizens. We also, as far as a citizen review board, we are talking, and we’re working on that now to figure out what would be the best mechanism and how we can put that in place. And that is a reaction to what we’ve heard from CCI. And I know Josh and I have been working with them for the last — since we got elected on how we can make things better for everybody in this community, but providing a safe opportunity for everybody to reside and also then be supportive of our officers to make sure that they have the training and the mechanisms that they need to do even a more effective job.”

Denver Foote: “I believe in really looking at the Des Moines City budget and you can see a lot of discrepancies there like I shared earlier how much the Des Moines police budget is compared to other things. I am an Iowa Community Citizens for Improvement member, and I have been for four years. I have worked closely with many of their organizers and I do strongly believe in freezing the Des Moines Police Department budget. I do believe in a third-party review and a community board. The third-party review cannot be chosen by somebody who is involved with the police it should be by community, right, and it shouldn’t be just one review. It should be constant reviews. I believe in making policing public so no undercover cops, especially at public events. I am somebody who believes that police respond to violence — they do not stop it, and I have firsthand seen that. We need de-escalation trainings that are not. And one thing that a lot of people don’t know about our current police department is that they are trained in killology. So that means they aim to shoot, they don’t aim to de-escalate issues and that creates more violence on our communities. And if they shoot somebody, their family members are going to see that and they’re going to create an adversity to policing in our city. I personally currently have a lawsuit with the Des Moines Police Department. During the 2020 protests . . . I experienced the worst case of brutality that came out of those protests, and after that, I started working with Des Moines BLM, Des Moines People’s Townhall and really looking at city council and what we can do to reimagine public safety. That also includes decriminalizing marijuana, funding housing, food insecurity, transit, I know I’m running out of time, but I could go on.”

Josh Mandelbaum: “We need to take a comprehensive approach to public safety . . . supporting our first responders, our police and our fire, but looking at how we can do things better and differently. Part of that means creating a culture of de-escalation within our police department. It means looking at our use of force policy and bringing that in line with best practice, where de-escalation should be the goal of how we respond to every incident. And we need to set that as policy and we need to train to de-escalation. I was proud to help advocate and bring in folks from outside of our department to conduct model de-escalation training. We need to use data to inform our policy. So we banned racial profiling. But we now have started collecting data on every single stop. Before if someone got a warning, we didn’t collect data on those stops or what happened in those stops. That data should be used to inform our policy and our practices going forward. We need to do things like implement policies to legalize marijuana, and I advocated for that at the state level. Absent that, we need to make marijuana the lowest enforcement priority in our department. That is something that we can do at the local level and that we should do. We need to look at additional policies and how we provide the accountability. I support a community review board that is as close to the Cedar Rapids community review board that they have passed and that they are implementing as our current law allows us to go. I’ve been on the record publicly for that. I’ve worked with the community on that and I am committed to that approach going forward. We need to use data and best practices available elsewhere to improve our practices here.”

What would you do differently to ensure marginalized residents’ voices are respected and heard at council meetings?

Connie Boesen: “. . .One thing is make sure that everybody can sign up, and then we have an opportunity that people sign up and that we give them more time. I know that I proposed — we made some rule changes that we extended the public speaking time from a half hour to an hour, and I believe after experiencing some last night even we need to give people an opportunity to speak more. I am accessible, too, as a council person. I would be as a mayor. It’s not only just meetings, but as an elected official, I’m accessible. I answer my phone, I answer my emails. I go out to work with people. If a resident has an issue, I go out to see what that issue is because sometimes you can’t tell it by just being on the phone or an email. I really deal with some issues. And in fact, two weeks ago, I think I spent over two hours — issues with the people were facing that were important to them, and to be able to go out and talk to them and see firsthand what those issues were and work to get them solved. So I think that we can work not just through a meeting, but we can work as a mayor or a council member to help people where they’re at when they have an issue and solve their problems.”

Denver Foote: “During 2020, when a lot of things were going around with policing and public safety, we would go to council meetings and we would fill them up when they were virtual. It got down to a point where they didn’t want to hear our voices and they limited us to 10 seconds to speak during public portion. That’s not listening to your public. I promise I will never do that to you. I promise that I will listen to you. We need to make meetings hybrid. A lot of people have been reaching out to this current council, to city to say can we do hybrid meetings, and they say: ‘Oh, it’s not possible.’ We can’t do it. But how are other cities doing hybrid meetings, like Iowa City? We can make that accessible — that’s a huge issue. A lot of people are online. It’s also having input on other things, right, like the city budget. I remember when they were going through meetings for the 2023 budget. They had meetings during lunch breaks downtown to get the people who worked in the businesses downtown. It wasn’t reaching out to people in like the Merle Hay Neighborhood or the south side. A lot of focus goes around the metro in the city and the people who can work downtown are usually traveling from other places. We also need to obviously translate more things. I’m very keen on making council meetings accessible and making our current council be able to listen.”

Josh Mandelbaum: “So I think we need to start by listening more. That is a fundamental part of this job. I think one of the things that we’ve done that we didn’t get right, is we’ve been too restrictive in our public comment periods, and it’s not just extending the public comment period at the end from 30 minutes to an hour. We need to provide a greater amount of time for people to speak. It is very hard as this illustrates, we give people two minutes to speak, and it can be very difficult, particularly on a complicated issue or if you have a lot to say in an issue, to express everything in just two minutes. We used to allow public comment for up to five minutes. I think we need to go back to that five-minute period, and we used to allow members of the public to speak on a wider variety of topics, including at our planning and zoning hearings. We used to allow more time. Right now we’re allowing people just a minute to speak. And for a lot of hearings, that’s adequate, but sometimes when we have hearings with greater public interest and greater, greater amounts of participation, we need to allow people to speak. The example last night is we had the Highland Park Apartments, which there were a lot of people who wanted to speak some of whom had more than just a minute’s worth of things to say. I asked my colleagues last night to waive our rules and allow for more time for the folks at that meeting. Unfortunately, we didn’t as a council. No one supported that motion. But we need to make that practice. The minimum we can do is listen more and we should do that everywhere and every time, and I’m committed to doing that.”

Several municipalities (in other states) have supported initiatives like the CROWN Act, which prohibit hair discrimination, and reparations for Black people. Do you support the CROWN Act and reparations for Black people?

Connie Boesen: “We should not not support how we can treat people fairly, and the CROWN Act, . . . I would support that effort. And I think that as far as reparations, we would have to look on how you do that and how better we can do it. I think there’s things that have been put in place I know with Polk County for people to get deposits — to put a deposit down on homes, on their first home. And I think we can look at how we can move forward on that, but I think that we have an obligation to make sure that we give people the opportunity that have been not given that opportunity in the past and developing the programs that we can put in place to do that.”

Denver Foote: “I strongly believe in Black reparations, especially as somebody who is Indigenous and my family was colonized by the Spaniards. We have to remember that America is built on slavery. America is built on labor and capitalism is built on the backs of Black people. We need to remember our history and we cannot whitewash our history. We need to remember that Black people even now are facing immense, immense problems within their communities. We need to make sure that this goes back to making sure that they have homes to live in, this makes sure that we’re retrofitting homes so we’re lowering energy bills that we’re making sure the homes are not getting to the point of being demolished like the Highland Park Apartments, which could have been affordable living which could have provided small businesses. We need to go back to our Black community and ask them what can we do for you? What can we do for you and how can we help support you? Because as somebody who is a person of color, I definitely relate to the struggle of being a minority, honestly. We need to remember that this land is stolen. We are on Meskwaki, Ioway and Missouri land, and we need to recognize that Black people’s lives have been stolen, right. They have been stripped from their homeland, and they have been placed in America, and we used and abused our people of color in America to push for the capitalist agenda, period.”

Josh Mandelbaum: “So I think we need to do more with our civil rights ordinance. And that is a way to provide more equity. So I support efforts like the CROWN Act to ban discrimination. And it goes beyond that. So I was proud to champion our legal source of income ordinance, which meant that you can’t discriminate in housing against someone regardless of how they pay: whether that be a Section 8 voucher, child support alimony, Social Security Disability. The legal source of income was another way to use our civil and human rights ordinance as a tool for equity. It’s also why I introduced our abortion policy, where one of the things that we can do at the local level is we can prevent discrimination based on the type of health care services that people have accessed. It’s been done in other parts of the country. If someone has access to abortion or other reproductive care, we shouldn’t allow discrimination in the workplace or in housing based on that, and I was proud to introduce that. I will work with anyone on the council to pass that. I also think that we need to look at how we equitably provide services. There’s a lot more that we can do. It’s why I was proud to support our effort and pilot a Basic Income program that looked at how we can provide assistance to more folks, more equitably and reduce barriers. It’s why on the DART commission. I’ve worked on increasing access and making it easier for people to access our assistance. So instead of having to sign up for assistance just on DART, you can use your food assistance or your childcare assistance to sign up for DART assistance as well. But we need to do things like that to make sure that there is greater access to services and to assistance.”

It’s difficult for a newspaper story or brief newscast to include most of what happens during a forum where several people are discussing many different topics for nearly two hours. That’s why I’m sharing the candidates’ complete responses to the three questions I asked on behalf of the Black community. If you want to watch the entire event and learn what the coalition and other panelists asked, view the forum on the coalition’s Facebook page.


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