A lawsuit is seeking records related to use of force by Des Moines police. (Photo courtesy of Des Moines Police Department)
Middle ground is not something that often is seen nowadays in Iowa government or our politics.
These days, candidates, elected officials and community members often are seen as flawed if they speak in favor of the middle ground.
Case in point: Too many people have staked out extreme positions on one of the most important topics, law enforcement. They either take up the nonsensical “defund the police” rally cry, or they make the opposite, but equally flawed, demand to support police without regard for any shortcomings in officers’ actions or practices.
Those thoughts were bouncing around in my cranium last week when I read a new lawsuit that was filed against the city of Des Moines by local attorney, who in retirement has become a voice of reason in the fractious discussions over the actions by law officers in Iowa.
If you have coffee with Harvey Harrison, and I have, you will find him to be thoughtful, measured, soft-spoken, but persistent. He is not some firebrand. You would not confuse him with some of the activists who vandalized police cars in Des Moines during protests following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
But do not confuse Harrison’s reserved demeanor with apathy.
He absolutely believes the Des Moines Police Department needs greater accountability to the public for the actions of some of its officers. He believes police commanders — and Des Moines City Council members — have been too accepting of policing practices that are discriminatory or abusive.
In the wake of citizen protests following Floyd’s death in May 2020, Harrison has been trying to evaluate the use of force by Des Moines police. He obtained a police department report on its officers’ use of force during 2020. Like any thorough researcher, he followed up by asking for copies of the documents the city used in preparing the report.
Harrison also asked for a copy of the department’s use-of-force findings from an incident on May 31, 2020, involving three police officers who approached a man who was walking alone across Court Avenue about 2:30 a.m. The incident was captured on private video that Harrison obtained. The video showed the officers shove the unidentified man to the ground and then walk away.
“It’s not OK for anybody, including Des Moines police officers, to come up and knock a person down on the street and apparently pick up their cell phone and walk away,” Harrison told KCCI-TV when the video surfaced earlier this year.
Harrison noted in his request to the city that the 2020 summary report said there were 282 contacts between Des Moines officers and the public that year that involved the use of force. A total of 387 use-of-force reports were prepared regarding those incidents.
The reply to Harrison should trouble Iowans, whether they live in Des Moines or merely visit there periodically.
City officials claimed these use-of-force reports must be kept confidential because they are part of the officers’ personnel files, because the reports are part of a law enforcement investigation, because the reports are attorney work product prepared in anticipation of litigation, and because Iowa law makes confidential any complaints against law officers and any statements, interviews or disciplinary proceedings that grow out of those complaints.
Here is the problem with the city’s absolutist position:
While Police Chief Dana Wingert promised his department would investigate the officers’ actions in the video Harrison spoke to KCCI about, the department refuses to share with the public what disciplinary action, if any, came out of that internal investigation.
That was the same position Wingert and Deputy City Attorney Carol Moser took after Katie Akin, a Des Moines Register reporter, was chased down from behind by a police officer and sprayed in the face with tear gas while complying with a police order to leave the Iowa Capitol grounds during a protest over the George Floyd death.
Wingert told KCCI when the Court Avenue video became public, “Our policy on conduct is very clear, and compliance in this regard will be the focus of our investigation.”
The chief’s statement is not reassuring when these incidents involving officers’ use of force continue — and when the police department’s silence continues when asked about the outcome of their internal investigations.
Is it any wonder that folks like Harrison remain doubters that meaningful discipline is occurring? Is it any wonder that Harrison went to Polk County District Court last week asking the court to compel the city to make available the records he has requested on use of force by police?
Des Moines city officials are not going to bolster public trust and confidence in the police department through continual assertion that records about incidents involving the use of force must forever be confidential.
Confidentiality was not the go-to response in Minneapolis two years ago when Officer Derek Chauvin squeezed the life out of George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for 9 minutes while three other officers looked on silently.
Within a few days, the public knew the details of past complaints about Chauvin’s actions and the outcome of the police department’s investigations of those complaints.
Transparency, not secrecy, is the way police agencies build trust and respect. Harrison knows that. It’s too bad city leaders in Des Moines do not.
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