African-American youths in Johnson County are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system, according to a state report released this week along with an Iowa City review of law enforcement interaction with minorities.
Both reports, provided to the Iowa City Council, noted concerns about policing discrimination. The report, produced by the state’s Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning, found the average detention rate for African-American juveniles ages 10 and 17 in Johnson County to be 19.1, compared with 11.6 for Caucasian juveniles.
The average rate of detention for African-American juveniles is 1.7 times higher than the rate for Caucasian youths, according to the state report.
It also found that, regarding the most common criminal complaints, allegations against Caucasian youths decreased from 419 in 2010 to 376 in 2012. Allegations against African-American youths increased during that time, rising from 338 to 428.
The second study, conducted by Iowa City’s new Ad Hoc Diversity Committee, reviewed a handful of issues related to law enforcement interaction with minorities. It noted several concerns that have arisen in the community and it made suggestions – including changing parts of the Police Citizens Review Board complaint procedure and possibly eliminating the board, if issues still remain in a year.
“After receiving comments from the public, it is the belief of the committee that the police department is currently functioning under a ‘control and monitor’ approach to dealing with our minority citizens, which has led to mutual feelings of distrust,” according to the report.
But Dave Kuker, executive officer with the state’s Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning, said the issues uncovered in Johnson County exist in other communities of its size and makeup.
“You have not been singled out because you have problems,” Kuker said. “The issues identified in your community are similar to the issues we identified in other communities.”
The state division, charged by the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act to reduce disproportionate minority contact with law enforcement, also conducted research in Black Hawk, Polk and Woodbury counties because they have high minority populations.
Regarding arrests of juvenile minorities in Johnson County, the state report found that most of the offenses were minor – simple misdemeanors.
“The encouraging piece is that we are not talking about gun-toting and drug-selling young people who constitute the bulk of the arrests,” Kuker said. “We are talking about low-level offenses – young people fighting in their neighborhood and not cooperative with law enforcement.”
The state report recommends holding community conversations about other ways to handle and prevent those types of offenses.
“I don’t want to minimize any level of violence or suggest there aren’t victims to many of these crimes,” Kuker said. “But to strike some level of balance on how we want to deal with these folks I think would help everyone.”
Other recommendations for Johnson County include using a screening tool developed for juvenile detention. The community doesn’t currently have a tool – a one-page document – to analyze whether a juvenile is dangerous and should be detained, Kuker said.
“We want a single and standard set of criteria by which decisions are being made,” he said.
Likewise, the state suggests Iowa City police work with local schools to establish a standard set of policies through which students are disciplined.
“In the Iowa City school district, as in others, kids of color are overrepresented in the discipline process,” Kuker said.
The local diversity committee’s report made several recommendations including creating a more positive culture in the Iowa City Police Department that focuses on protecting and serving.
This could include holding more relationship-building activities with the public, educating officers on common assumptions around minorities, and educating the community on their rights.
Regarding concerns with the Police Citizens Review Board, the committee suggested several changes like including the city manager and complainant in interviews with police officers in question. It also suggested reviewing the changes in a year.
“If, at that time, it is felt that there are still problems and that the process isn’t working, it is recommended that the Police Citizens Review Board be eliminated,” according to the report, which went on to suggest the city replace it with a new system.
Iowa City police Capt. Jim Steffan said the department was involved in the research and is aware of the issues.
“And we are working with other agencies in Johnson County to address the concerns,” he said.
But, he stressed, these issues are not specific to Johnson County, and the department is looking at what others are doing to find the cause and possible solutions to the disparities. Steffan said race is not something officers consider when deciding to charge someone.
“We look at are the elements of a crime being met, is a victim involved and what do we need to do to restore peace and order,” he said.