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Black residents voice concerns about ‘police intimidation’ in Des Moines
Many African-American drivers live with the fear that a simple traffic stop by the police could escalate quickly from a ticket to a physical beating or even jail.
Some black parents must acknowledge their “Driving While Black” fears when their children first learn to drive.
Those fears and concerns have intensified in Des Moines since two white police officers maced and beat a black couple with police batons during a traffic stop on Sept. 12.
Black leaders, residents and others gathered at a meeting organized by the Des Moines Branch of the NAACP to learn more about the case and voice their concerns. Several people, including two Iowa Legislators, asked for better policing techniques and improved community relations.
“I still think we’re heading to a crisis,” said State Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, (D-Des Moines). “What we’re seeing now are just signs. And we’re watching it escalate each time something happens… down the road it’s going to hit a brick wall.”
About 40 people, including police officers and members of the NAACP, met Monday at the Bob Mickle Center in Des Moines to get details of the case involving Erin Evans, 21 and Octavius Bonds, 24. Neither the couple nor their attorney, Peter Berger, attended the meeting.
Bonds and Evans were stopped by officers Mersed Dautovic and John Mailander after Evans allegedly failed to yield to an emergency vehicle. According to the Des Moines Register, the officers reported that the couple was uncooperative and failed to respond to their orders, and they struck them with police batons and also used mace on Bonds. The couple was charged with interference with official acts. Bonds also was charged with assault on a police officer. Both have pleaded not guilty. The couple’s arraignment is Oct. 24. One witness told the Des Moines Register that the couple did not act aggressively toward the officers.
Linda Carter-Lewis, president of the Des Moines branch of the NAACP, said no conclusions have been drawn about the case, but they organized the meeting to provide the community with more facts.
Major David Lillard of the police department told meeting attendees that the complaint process has stalled because the couple’s attorney, Berger, had advised them against sharing their version of what happened with police until after the criminal trial, which could be sometime in February of 2009. He said the long wait for information is “not ideal.”
Lillard said both officers are still on duty. Lillard said regardless of the outcome of the trial, the allegations that the officers used too much force will be investigated. He said they also need the couple’s version of what happened.
“We want to get every piece of information from them that we can,” Lillard said.
Lillard stressed that if it is found that the “young officers” had made mistakes, they would be held accountable. A few residents said the inexperience of the officers did not justify their behavior.
Lillard also explained that anytime officers use physical force, including batons and tasers, they must file a report that is reviewed by several people, including Chief of Police Judy Bradshaw. Reports also are reviewed by Rudy Sims, director of the Des Moines Human Rights Commission and the city attorney and city manager, Lillard said.
“Not all the evidence is in,” Lillard said. “Not all the facts have been gathered.”
State Rep. Wayne Ford, (D-Des Moines) asked officials about their stance on using citizen review panels. Lillard said the community has not pushed for such a review mechanism, but that the investigation will have a “transparent conclusion.”
In 2007, the Des Moines Police Department received 28 citizen complaints and 45 internal complaints against officers. Of the citizen complaints, 11 were “sustained” which meant the officers “did something wrong and were disciplined,” Lillard said. Of the 45 internal complaints, 48 were sustained. The number of sustained complaints is higher because some of the internal complaints involved more than one police officers. Penalties for the officers could include counseling, oral reprimand, written reprimand, suspension without pay and termination.
Two officers were terminated for their behavior in 2007, Lillard said.
Lillard did not provide disaggregated or comparative data of the complaints, but more detailed data was requested by residents, including Drake University Professor Eric Johnson.
Officials said there are 382 sworn officers in Des Moines and of that total, 211 are patrol officers. Lillard said he didn’t have data on the officers’ racial makeup.
Resident Betty Petty asked Lillard why there have not been media requests, like in other high profile cases, asking for witnesses to come forward. Lillard said he couldn’t answer that, but that “the more eyes we have on this incident, the better off we are going to be able to get to the truth.”
Officers are supposed to use “just enough force to take that person into custody and nothing more,” Lillard said.
Educator Kittie Weston-Knauer asked officials if it wouldn’t make more sense to remove the two officers from duty pending the investigations.
Lillard said all the parties are entitled to due process, but that the officers are “under extreme scrutiny” because of this case.
Residents asked a variety of questions about officer training for anger management, the number of cameras in squad cars, how much force is considered too much and what is being done to improve police community relations with blacks.
Lillard said officers receive annual trainings and “refresher” diversity training. He said budget constraints limit the number of cameras in squad cars. He hopes neighborhood-based officers and meetings such as the one held on Monday night might help improve community relations.
Des Moines School Board Member Jonathan Narcisse said there are a growing number of concerns about racial profiling and police intimidation.
“We’re not out there to intimidate people,” Lillard responded. He added that officers would prefer to help people without ever having to take someone to jail.
Sgt. Bernell Edwards said he spends a lot of time in neighborhoods north of downtown and has good interactions with residents.
“We need to reach out to the rest of this community,” he said.
Community Activist Veola Perry said the police department must become “more creative” at reaching out to residents who might not feel comfortable attending a meeting.
“Go where they are,” said Jo Ann Lovelady, a community activist. “They’re not coming because they’re already intimidated.”
A few residents shared stories about being stopped by police. Debra Green, 34, said she had been stopped by police several times. One time she didn’t have a child in a car seat, but felt that because she has a criminal record, officers asked to search her car for drugs.
Green said that officers should treat people respectfully regardless of whether the motorist has a criminal record or not.
“Because you have a record, that doesn’t give police a right to beat you,” she said.
Green told police officials that young officers need more guidance on how not to abuse their power.
Lillard stressed to residents that if they feel they’ve been mistreated by a police officer to file a complaint with the department’s Office of Professional Standards. He said the complaints are investigated and residents will receive a letter detailing the outcome of the complaint.