How will we address the Disproportionate Minority Contact?

Sullivan's Salvos

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In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, I thought it might be worth resurrecting an idea I had back in 2014.

I was working with LaTasha DeLoach, Director of the Iowa City/Johnson County Senior Center and former member of the ICCSD Board of Directors. You may know her as a founder of G World.

At the time, she worked for Johnson County Social Services.

One of her duties at Johnson County was serving as the Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) Coordinator for Johnson County.

Several counties (Johnson being one) were under a federal consent decree to do something about the disproportionate numbers of people of color in the juvenile justice system.

It was a long slog of building trust, creating data sets that did not exist previously, and slowly adopting policies.

But over LaTasha’s time at Johnson County, we made measurable progress toward our DMC goals. We did not fix everything, mind you. But we made measurable progress.

I was impressed by her work, but the consent decree was limited. I wanted to do something about DMC in our adult systems.

While LaTasha could not work on adult issues per her grant, she volunteered to help me dig into our DMC issues.

We knew DMC was bad in our adult system. It still is.

We began looking at where disparities come from.

As it turned out, we found a common theme.

Officers and command staff from every law enforcement agency in Johnson County had some variation of the same response: “We go where we are told.”

The single biggest problem we had in dispatch was what we can now call the “Amy Cooper” problem.

You remember Amy Cooper? She is the white woman who threatened a black man that she would call the cops and falsely accuse him.

In fairness, most of the calls in Johnson County were not as egregious as Amy Cooper. But the calls were things like, “A black man is loitering outside my house,” “Black kids appear to be up to no good” and “I don’t like the looks of this guy.”

It is not hard to see how this creates more DMC.

If cops are always being called on you, you are going to have ramifications.

Maybe you are just a bit intoxicated. Maybe you have a small amount of weed. Maybe you missed a court date. Maybe you owe the courts some money. Maybe you simply push back against what you rightfully view as harassment.

There are a million things that can turn an otherwise-innocuous stop into charges and/or an arrest – an arrest that frankly, didn’t need to happen.

Once dispatch orders a car to check a situation out, the cops are on their way. It is already too late. So, we began looking at dispatch.

In Johnson County, law enforcement is dispatched by the Joint Emergency Communications Center (JECC).

JECC is overseen by a 7-person board that includes the Sheriff, the Emergency Management Director, a County Supervisor, two Iowa City representatives, a rep from Coralville, and a rep from North Liberty. That group hires a Director (Tom Jones), who then hires staff.

LaTasha and I met with Tom. He shared some of the challenges of doing dispatch.

Yes, the dispatchers could start asking more questions, but every extra question takes valuable time, and dispatch is all about quick responses.

It was also interesting to hear Tom say that JECC sometimes got racist complaints. Callers sometimes said things like, “There is a (N-word) in my neighborhood.”

He estimated that there might be a dozen or more 911 calls every year that were explicitly racist. Granted, that is a very small percentage of the thousands of calls they receive. But I still found it shocking.

LaTasha and I presented to the JECC Board and requested that they come up with some type of response.

I was thinking along the lines of the way in which fire departments deal with false alarms. You get one free, and after that, you are charged a fee for wasting public resources.

Perhaps we could have law enforcement officers follow back up with people who made sketchy complaints and explain to them that they were wasting public resources, and warn them that if they did so again, they would be getting a ticket for interference with official acts, filing a false report or some other charge.

Understand, JECC does not have the staff to do this kind of follow up.

It would need to be law enforcement or whatever follows law enforcement as we know it.

And I am certain this will be resisted; no one wants yet another task to do, especially one that will be unpleasant. But I really think this is critical.

I asked that the JECC Board, individual cities, and County consider this policy. It went nowhere.

I think the time for an “Amy Cooper” law might be right now. I am going to send this to the various entities involved in JECC.

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