Iowa City’s Strategic Plan: Make Every Young Person a Criminal

Jeff Cox, 2 June 2013  •  Comments

[PDF version as published in The Prairie Progressive]

The City of Iowa City no doubt has a “strategic plan.” These documents usually contain a mixture of goals and methods to achieve those goals. Furthermore, they are flexible, which means that they must be updated every few years despite the chorus of groans that can be heard from the naysayers and skeptics who actually have to do the work.

To make sure that everything is up to date in Iowa City, and the strategic plan actually conforms to city policy, the city council should add a goal: “We will insure that every young person in Iowa City has a criminal record.”

The council already has the methods in place to achieve this goal. The jail bond referendum was defeated in November and again in May because the Iowa City Police Department was largely responsible for the 500% increase in the number of people jailed since the last jail was built, at a time when population increased only by 150%. After the November referendum, the council voted to make things even worse by hiring two new police officers to patrol the downtown streets, arresting and handing out criminal citations to even more young people, including college students. Following the May referendum, the council responded by applying for a federal grant to hire two additional armed police officers for our high schools. They will be present in school to issue criminal citations, arrest students, and provide armed intervention in hallway fights.

We have fought this fights in the community twice before, most recently when former City High Principal Mark Hanson attempted to hire an armed officer. He was truly astonished at the outcry, since most other high schools around the state, or at least a lot of them, have an armed officer. This is Iowa City, though, not Mason City, and opposition was so vehement that the school board eventually let it die. Does no one have any historical memory? If the School Board proceeds with this, it will be highly divisive, and create great bitterness in a community already badly divided on the jail issue.

A recent editorial in the New York Times (April 18) pointed out that it has been established, scientifically, that schools with police officers criminalize far more juveniles than comparable schools without officers. Officers are trained to arrest and penalize people, not act as teachers or social workers or role models. Will we not be content until every single young person in Iowa City has a criminal record?

The council applied for the federal grant on the advice of Police Chief Sam Hargardine, whose response to the Sandy Hook massacre was to publicly call for armed police officers in our schools. There is no reason at all to believe that an armed officer could have prevented the Sandy Hook massacre, and it is well known that the infamous Columbine High School massacre happened despite the presence of armed officers. It is perhaps ironic that the major outcome of the Sandy Hook massacre, with predictable assistance from President Obama, may be the introduction of guns into our schools.

Police officers will of course not leave their guns at the door. Some parents will welcome the armed supervision of their children, but other parents will be outraged. Some children will be afraid of them. There is a very real danger that the presence of a weapon will heighten rather than defuse potentially violent situations. What happens when a student disobeys a police officer's commands and either has a knife or tries to grab an officer's gun?

Chief Hargardine will of course say that we are highly trained professionals who will probably never even draw our guns, but don’t say it can’t happen here. Keep in mind what happened on the streets of Iowa City to a now forgotten immigrant from Africa, John Deng, so intoxicated that he could barely stand up, shot dead by an officer because he had a penknife that he was probably using to defend himself against an assault by a white man. It does happen here, and if a student is shot or even killed by an officer, however tragic and unnecessary the case might be, it will be entirely legal.

I hesitate to even raise the issue because of the storm of outrage that greeted our even raising the issue of racial disparities in the jail, not to mention the vile and abusive racist communications I received for daring to oppose a bigger jail. (See “Don’t You Dare Use the R Word” from the Prairie Progressive, available at http://votenojusticecenter.org/). However, The New York Times editorial also pointed out that the presence of armed officers lead to the disproportional criminalization of African American young people.

Iowa City community leaders have greeted the influx of black young people so far by imposing a 100% racist juvenile curfew, and putting up apartheid-like signs at our bus stops. At a time when 40% of those jailed are African-American, our community leaders proposed building an even bigger jail to house young people when they turn eighteen, i.e. greatly expand the existing school to prison pipeline for African-Americans. Now they propose to put them under the supervision of armed guards in school. More than 50% of young people in “secure juvenile detention” are African-Americans already. That number will grow.

Armed officers in our high school will hurt the young people of our community of all races by giving more of them criminal records, leave many students feeling threatened by the presence of guns in the schools, divide parents over whether it is good or bad for students, further polarize a community where many people on both sides remain angry over the jail elections, exacerbate racial divisions, and do incalculable harm to public education in Iowa City. In a community that is proud of its schools, it is difficult to imagine a more divisive, harmful step to propose.

— Jeff Cox