A series of disturbing incidents involving Waterloo police officers came to light this summer through legal settlements, a pending lawsuit, and a criminal trial. The common thread was white police officers using excessive force or offensive language toward African-Americans in Waterloo, the Iowa city with the largest proportion of black residents.
Waterloo Police Chief Dan Trelka announced an investigation into one officer, who laughed at the scene of an 18-year-old’s fatal shooting, called the victim a “dead mother f—-er” and said “we just need a semi-apocalyptic event to get rid of 90 percent of them.”
But Trelka has also accused the media of making too much of the scandals, telling local radio host Bob Bruce last month that negative news coverage obscures great progress being made in the department. Trelka acknowledged “we needed to adjust,” adding that “we have adjusted with changes in policy and training.”
Last year, external reviewers suggested at least ten reforms for the Waterloo Police Department. I have been unable to find evidence that Trelka and his staff acted on any of those recommendations.
Trelka appeared on KXEL’s The Bob Bruce Radio Experience on August 12. The previous day, Ryan Foley had reported for the Associated Press on three events that led to expensive settlements by the city of Waterloo. I was shocked to learn none of the officers involved were disciplined over their excessive uses of force, despite needlessly escalating each of the interactions and in one case attempting to justify rough treatment of a teenager by making false statements on a police report.
When Bruce asked Trelka about new policies adopted after the incidents that inspired lawsuits, the chief gave just one example: he had “cut and pasted” language from Iowa Code on handcuffing juveniles “right into our policy” and made clear that if officers do handcuff a juvenile, they need to explain in their report why their action met the criteria. (Foley had reported, “officer Timothy Everett took the 13-year-old girl to the ground and handcuffed her after she refused to give him her last name. Everett initiated the encounter after the girl yelled ‘slow down’ after he sped by in his patrol car, pulling a U-turn to confront her about the comment.”)
During the same radio interview, Trelka insisted that any problems were isolated incidents (beginning near the 24:00 mark):
I put this police department against any police department in this country. The DOJ [U.S. Department of Justice] has actually been in here to take a look at this police department and passed–[former Waterloo] Mayor [Buck] Clark had an arm of them come in, and they gave us a favorable report.
A DOJ review of the Waterloo Police Department was news to me. When I requested further information, Chief Trelka responded right away with a copy of a nine-page report, which I uploaded here.
The Police Executive Research Forum conducted the review. For four decades, that non-profit has “identified best practices on fundamental issues such as reducing police use of force; developing community policing and problem-oriented policing; using technologies to deliver police services to the community; and evaluating crime reduction strategies.”
A grant from the DOJ Office of Community Oriented Policing Services funded PERF’s “Site Summary for the Waterloo Police Department,” dated September 18, 2015. In contrast to a thorough DOJ investigation like the recent probe of the Baltimore Police Department, PERF was charged with providing “targeted technical assistance” in Waterloo, focusing on “community engagement and gang violence.”
Two staffers for the non-profit, one from the DOJ, and a consultant with relevant experience from the Los Angeles Police Department visited Waterloo for three days in June 2015. After speaking with community residents and police officers, reviewers noted “somewhat of a racial divide in the city and a lack of trust between the minority community and some officers,” as well as “burnout” by officers who “have little time for community engagement due to a high volume of calls for service.”
In an August 25 e-mail, I asked Trelka whether the department had altered its use-of-force policy or made any other changes to prevent the kind of mistakes that caused recent lawsuits and settlements. For example, would investigators be required to interview civilians involved in incidents that sparked complaints? The teenager who got a $100,000 settlement from the city was not interviewed by investigators who cleared the officer. I also asked whether efforts to recruit more minority police officers were ongoing in Waterloo, since the department has only two African-American officers and one Latino officer while serving a city population that is 15.5 percent black and 5.6 percent Latino.
After receiving no reply, I sent another e-mail on August 29, asking Trelka and the department’s public information officer, Captain Dave Mohlis, about ten specific recommendations from the PERF report.
Most of the ideas appeared in a section called “WPD should take immediate steps to address police-community relations.” (emphasis in original)
• “WPD may consider a staffing study to review their calls-for-service and patrol shift staffing levels to ensure that the department has the appropriate amount of officers for each shift and to help identify times when officers may engage in more community-focused activities.”
I asked whether the department had conducted such a study, and if so, what changes were implemented. I received no reply, despite following up two weeks after sending the original e-mail.
• “WPD could explore the use of online reporting or having volunteers follow up via phone on less serious calls for service. This would free up time for officers to participate in proactive policing and community engagement activities, and to spend more time on calls using the interactions as opportunities for building relationships and even recruiting, as appropriate.”
Again, I received no response to multiple e-mails asking about any changes to the calls-for-service policy, such as following up via phone on less serious calls.
• “WPD should consider providing scenario-based training and facilitating an ongoing dialogue […] on applying the principles of procedural justice to policing […]. WPD may also consider providing training to improve the cultural competency of all personnel, and training that assists in the recognition and countering of implicit biases.”
No response to my question about whether the department added training in the areas of procedural justice, police-community relations, and/or recognition and countering of implicit biases.
• “WPD may consider ‘rebranding’ the department to reflect the principles of procedural justice, perhaps starting with modifying the mission statement. WPD could consider adding the words ‘trust,’ ‘transparency,’ and ‘respect,’ which are already values identified by one of the department’s core value statements. Adding these terms to the mission statement would invoke a more ‘guardian-like’ mentality and lessen the ‘warrior-like’ image that some community members have of the department.” The same paragraph encouraged the department to seek public input, including from youth, when crafting “a new plan for police-community relationships in the city.”
At this writing, the mission statement has not been revised, as you can see here or in the screen shot at the top of this post. It still reads, “To vigilantly protect, service, and work together with our community to prevent crime and enhance the quality of life in our neighborhoods.”
No word from the Waterloo Police Department on whether a new plan for police-community relationships is in the making.
• “WPD must create opportunities for officers to engage with youth in schools and to start to build relationships with youth in the community, especially elementary-aged youth.” The report suggested having officers help with school breakfast or lunch, or read and play games with school children. It praised department efforts to give children books or “baseball” cards featuring “stats” on individual police officers.
No word from the department on any steps to increase community engagement, such as having more officers spend time in schools on less busy days.
• “WPD should work closely with the community in high-crime areas where relationships are strained to develop programs that bring the police and community together and disrupt opportunities for crime, such as ‘movies in the park’ or midnight basketball. […] WPD should establish a community or youth academy program so residents can get to know the officers […]. WPD could work with local foster homes, schools, and probation officers to create a volunteer program for at-risk, non-violent youth, or a mentoring program such as a Police Activities League.”
I received no response to multiple e-mails asking whether the department has tried to develop such programs.
The PERF review had a separate point on the complaint process:
• “WPD may consider reviewing its complaint process and recent complaints against officers for disrespectful behavior issues, especially on the third shift. The process should be revised if needed and clearly outlined to the community […]. Information about the complaint process should also be made more accessible on the department’s website, and community members should have the ability to easily file a complaint online.”
During his interview with KXEL’s Bruce, Trelka asserted that complaints against police officers were “down tremendously.”
I received no answer to questions about changes to the complaint process. My searches on the department’s site did not uncover an online form or any instructions on how to file a complaint related to police conduct.
A point about the department’s Violent Crime Apprehension Team, which focuses on gang-related crimes, contained more recommendations.
• “Provide technical assistance to the VCAT on including ‘gang interventionists’ as part of an overall violence reduction strategy […]. Other strategies that may be developed include identifying alternatives to arresting juveniles to keep at-risk youth out of the justice system and providing assistance to them and their families.”
No word on whether the Waterloo Police Department has changed the way it trains officers on the VCAT, either to include “gang interventionists” or to help identify alternatives to arresting at-risk youth.
• “WPD also needs to establish a definition for gang membership and a timeframe of when to purge youth from the database when they no longer meet the definition.”
Trelka and Mohlis did not reply to my repeated e-mails asking whether the department had established a definition for gang membership and a process for purging youth from the database.
The final point in the PERF review called for Review/revision of the department’s use of force policy.
• “A review of the department’s use-of-force policy indicated there are opportunities to update the policy and clarify language on expectations related to officer use of force. A complete review of the department’s use-of-force policy could be extremely beneficial to the department.”
I asked whether officials had revised that policy, and if so, for copies of the former and current texts. You can guess where this is going: no reply.
Last week I sought information from Police Executive Research Forum staff and the DOJ’s Community Oriented Policing Services office about whether anyone followed up to see what has happened in Waterloo since last summer. PERF’s chief of staff Andrea Luna, who visited Waterloo in 2015 and helped write the report, did not reply to my e-mail. Mary Brandenberger, a press secretary for the relevant branch of the DOJ, referred my questions to the Waterloo Police Department.
When I asked Brandenberger to clarify whether it is standard procedure for the COPS office to determine whether police departments act on recommendations from a PERF review, she responded by e-mail, “Under the COPS Office critical response program, technical assistance is provided and it is up to the police department to follow up on any recommendations.”
The Des Moines Register’s editorial board has called for the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct “a comprehensive review of the Waterloo Police Department’s policies, practices and culture,” saying the department “needs outside scrutiny and oversight if it is to regain the public’s trust.” Based on conduct visible in videos and described in news accounts and court testimony, I wholeheartedly agree.
But the Waterloo Police Department need not wait to see whether the feds investigate how it serves the community. If department leaders haven’t done so already, they should start putting into practice the advice outside experts provided nearly a year ago.
Top image: screen shot from the “Our Mission” page of the Waterloo Police Department’s website