A disturbing glimpse of police practices in Iowa's sixth-largest city

The Justice Department issued a horrifying report this week on Baltimore Police Department conduct. Reading about widespread racial discrimination, gender bias during sexual assault investigations, and unconstitutional strip searches and arrests by Baltimore officers, I hoped nothing that bad routinely happens in Iowa but wondered how police departments here would withstand such scrutiny.

The racial disparities in our state’s criminal justice system have long been among the largest in the country, landing Iowa on multiple lists of the “worst places” for black people. Statistics on arrests and prison populations don’t prove police acted improperly in any specific case, but they may signal racial profiling or other systemic problems.

Those statistics don’t reflect every questionable interaction between law enforcement and people in minority communities. Three cases that didn’t result in any prison sentences nonetheless point to excessive uses of force by Waterloo police against black residents.

Ryan Foley reported yesterday for the Associated Press that the city of Waterloo will settle three lawsuits filed over incidents that happened between 2013 and 2015.

In one (video obtained by the AP), officer Mark Nissen slams 17-year-old Malcolm Anderson face-first into a concrete sidewalk outside a hospital and leaves him handcuffed and injured on the ground. In another [which can be viewed here], Nissen points his stun gun at a crowd of black residents before using it to shock 31-year-old Justin Jones, who had been helping police break up an early morning party outside his home.

In a third case outlined in court records, 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.

That kind of conduct would be unacceptable by officers of any race against civilians of any race, but is especially troubling because research has shown racial profiling by law enforcement is prevalent across the country, and racial minorities are more likely to become victims of police brutality. An estimated 15.5 percent of Waterloo’s 68,460 residents are African-American, a higher proportion than in any other Iowa city. Foley noted that “just two of the city’s 124 police officers are black.”

Earlier this year, the city of Waterloo agreed to a $2.5 million settlement in a wrongful death lawsuit filed over a fatal police shooting of a black man in 2012. Though most people fatally shot by police are armed, a recent study of police shootings indicated that “unarmed black men were shot and killed last year at disproportionately high rates and that officers involved may be biased in how they perceive threats.” A different study of deaths at the hands of police (not only by firearms) showed, “Black Americans are more than twice as likely to be unarmed when killed during encounters with police as white people.”

Neither the city of Waterloo nor the officers involved in the 2012 fatal shooting of Derrick Ambrose Jr. admitted to wrongdoing in settling that case. Foley’s report yesterday suggests that the Waterloo Police Department is quick to forgive officers who hurt citizens they are supposed to protect. Internal affairs investigators:

• cleared both the officer who shot Jones with the stun gun and the one who later kneed him in the groin;

• did not interview Anderson before determining that Nissen had not used excessive force against him or violated any policies, even though officers involved in that incident falsely claimed Anderson had been fighting the police;

• decided Everett was justified in using force against a 13-year-old girl because she tried to run away, even though “Handcuffing juveniles is illegal in Iowa under most circumstances.”

Why weren’t these officers disciplined?

Police Chief Daniel Trelka said officers made “honest mistakes” due to deficient training. He said officers have been instructed to stop arresting people who won’t give their names, a practice that is illegal absent additional criminal activity.

“They were errors that we felt we could correct from training, that didn’t rise to the level of needing discipline,” he said.

Trelka said he remains confident in the policing abilities of Nissen, who has been sued four times since 2012 over his use of force. “It just happens he’s one of our most active officers,” the chief said.

Clearly, better training of these officers was warranted. But why would the department not also discipline those who needlessly escalated incidents (driving back to confront a 13-year-old girl, throwing Anderson on the ground, using a stun gun on Jones)? Making false statements in the police report on Anderson should itself have led to disciplinary action, once video had disproved the officers’ version of events. Thank goodness a bystander, freelance journalist Myke Goings, was filming that event, because without the footage, Anderson might have been wrongly convicted when charged with assaulting police officers.

Reading Foley’s story, I wondered how badly Waterloo police would need to abuse their authority before Chief Trelka determined some discipline was appropriate. If the chief’s attitude concerns me, a white woman living in another city, how discouraged must Waterloo’s African-American residents feel about getting fair treatment from local cops?

No doubt Waterloo isn’t the only city in Iowa where police departments look the other way after officers go too far. In Des Moines, Officer Cody Grimes still has a badge despite using excessive force on several occasions and having to “take an abusive behavior class” to get a domestic assault charge against him dismissed. Speaking to the Des Moines Register earlier this year, spokesman Sergeant Paul Parizek probably meant to sound reassuring, but worried me more when he said Grimes is “not at the top of the list of [the department’s] officers when it comes to use of force.” Raise your hand if you feel safer now, Des Moines readers.

That police work can be difficult and dangerous does not excuse officers from adhering to standards of conduct. Here’s hoping all Iowa police departments work harder to prevent incidents from escalating to the point of avoidable injuries. It took the tragic death of Freddie Gray in police custody to prompt the federal probe of Baltimore’s Police Department.

P.S.- I don’t mean to imply that police conduct or other issues associated with the criminal justice system are the only major problem facing African-American Iowans. Last year, a review of socioeconomic factors like household income, unemployment, and homeownership rates put the Des Moines metro area in ninth place and Waterloo/Cedar Falls tenth on a national list of “The Worst Cities For Black Americans.”

UPDATE: On August 14, John Molseed reported for the Waterloo/Cedar Falls Courier on the murder trial of Perquondis Holmes, who was charged in the 2013 shooting death of 18-year-old Dae’Quan Campbell. Defense counsel called Officer Kenneth Schaaf to testify on August 12.

Schaaf said he provided security at the scene of the shooting on Langley Road in Waterloo. In his testimony, Schaaf admitted to making statements there caught on tape.

Schaaf was recorded asking a colleague, “When was the last time we had a death where it’s a true victim?” That’saccording to a deposition taken in June defense attorney Robert Montgomery showed to Schaaf. […]

Schaaf admitted he laughed with a fellow officer at the scene, referred to Campbell as a “dead mother f—-er” and said “we just need a semi-apocalyptic event to get rid of 90 percent of them.”

On the stand Friday, Schaaf characterized his statements as “stupid,” “crass” and “insensitive.”

That’s putting it mildly. Try “inexcusable” and “unprofessional.” Or better yet, try another line of work.

SECOND UPDATE: Foley reported for the AP on August 15,

Waterloo Police Chief Daniel Trelka told The Associated Press that he opened an internal investigation into the remarks by officer Kenneth Schaaf after learning about them on Friday.

“We don’t tolerate these kinds of remarks,” he said.

The remarks — first reported by the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier (http://bit.ly/2btl7Gf ) — came to light when Schaaf testified at the trial of a man charged in the November 2013 shooting death of 18-year-old Dae’Quan Campbell.

In remarks caught on tape while he provided security for the death scene, Schaaf was recording asking a colleague, “When was the last time we had a death where it’s a true victim?” He also referred to Campbell as an obscenity and said “we just need a semi-apocalyptic event to get rid of 90 percent of them.”

THIRD UPDATE: Foley reported for the AP on August 24,

After resolving his federal lawsuit for $95,000, the city of Waterloo negotiated an extra $5,000 payment to Malcolm Anderson last month in exchange for guarantees that the 19-year-old and his attorney would not have any press conferences, make any disclosures to civil rights groups or ever mention the deal on social media. […]

“The people of Waterloo should be troubled that the city is paying $5,000 to Malcolm Anderson just to allow the government to try to remain silent about the police officer’s mistreatment of him,” said Randy Evans, director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. “Iowa law clearly does not allow secret settlements by government. Such secrecy is not in the best interests of government. It interferes with a full and frank discussion by the public and city officials of the police officer’s actions that led to the litigation and $95,000 settlement.” […]

After Waterloo settled with Anderson, the AP requested the agreement. The city instead released a summary of the $100,000 deal that didn’t mention confidentiality. The city later released two documents — one settlement and one confidentiality agreement — after AP renewed its request for the actual records.

Foley cited an interview Waterloo Police Chief Dan Trelka gave KXEL radio earlier this month. Trelka appeared during the first hour of Bob Bruce’s program on August 12, beginning around the 14:30 mark. Trelka downplayed the incidents that spawned the lawsuits as a product of a “litigious world.” He assured listeners that the department had “made policy changes” and offered training to prevent such incidents from happening in the future.

Asked about Nissen’s conduct leading to four separate lawsuits that the city settled, Trelka said Nissen worked in a “special unit” that “responds to our most violent crimes in the city. […] He works in our most challenging neighborhoods. So not necessarily the person, but circumstances can play a heavy dynamic into this.”

Sad to say, Bruce did not follow up by asking Trelka whether “circumstances” explain why Nissen filed a false police report to cover up the fact that he slammed Anderson on concrete with no provocation.

On the contrary, Bruce lobbed one friendly question after another, offering excuses and explanations for the police conduct. For instance, after Trelka answered “yeah” when Bruce asked, “Would you acknowledge that in these three cases mistakes were made?” Bruce followed up with, “Were there things done right, though, as well? So it wasn’t like these officers just showed up and everything they did was over the top and a mistake?”

Trelka responded, “Some situations we’re involved in, we just–there’s no winners. Sometimes we’re just, we’re darned if we do and we’re darned if we don’t.”

The chief implied that these Waterloo officers were in an impossible situation. But in each of these cases, the department would never have faced criticism, let alone lawsuits, if the officers had not needlessly escalated to physical violence.

At another point in the interview, Trelka lamented the fact that “As humans, we do make mistakes. You know, I think we’re in a society today where, people are–there’s an expectation that officers should not be making any mistakes whatsoever, and that kind of works against us. It’s a very difficult era to police in.”

Sure, everyone make mistakes. Not everyone’s mistakes lead to big legal settlements over excessive use of force, though.

And it certainly is “difficult” for police when amateur videos prevent officers from lying to cover up their misconduct, like Nissen tried to do after assaulting Anderson.

Around the 20:00 mark, Bruce asked Trelka how people should react when approached by police. Trelka pleaded with listeners to just follow the officer’s instructions, “and a thousand times out of a thousand, everything’s gonna be ok.”

Again, Bruce failed to ask the obvious follow-up question (don’t these lawsuits prove that Waterloo officers won’t behave appropriately “a thousand times out of a thousand”?).

Instead, the radio host asked, “Long-term, what does this settlement and the attention given to these, actually, three settlements, how does this harm the Waterloo Police Department?” Trelka answered,

Uh, you know, I think simply talking about it inflames tension between certain groups, which is a pity, because, you know, we’ve–so much progress has been made in this community. The use of force by the officers is down tremendously. The complaints that people file against the officers is down tremendously. The crime rate is down 22 percent in six years. There have been so many significant strides, but people want to focus on the negative issues that are generated in the news, and sadly, the negative news does sell. I wish we could focus more on what’s being accomplished. […]

This is a distraction, it’s frustrating, yes, I realize we needed to adjust. We have adjusted with changes in policy and training.

Bruce asked the chief to provide examples of those policy changes. Trelka said he “cut and pasted” language from Iowa Code on handcuffing juveniles “right into our policy” and made clear that if police do handcuff a juvenile, they need to explain in their report why it meets the criteria.

But if Trelka didn’t discipline Nissen for his false statements about Anderson, what’s to stop other officers from making things up on their reports to justify their actions?

Bleeding Heartland will have more to say in a future post on KXEL’s epic fail of an interview.

Tags: Crime, Race, Waterloo

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