A limited history of the racial profiling initiative in Des Moines, Iowa

How It Began

 In 2013, The Des Moines Civil & Human Rights Commission (the “Commission”) held two public meetings. The first was to give the Black community the opportunity to describe problems and issues from being Black in Des Moines. The vast majority of Black people who attended that meeting described personal and/or family experiences of being racially profiled in employment settings, business settings, and by police departments. During this same time, public officials, including the leadership of the Des Moines Police Department, denied that Des Moines had a problem with racial profiling. The police explained that no complaints were being filed by people claiming to have been racially profiled.

Lack of Complaints

 It was an accurate statement that “no complaints were being filed” because few, if any complaints about being profiled were filed by Black people. When Black people were asked why they were not filing complaints, they reported that:

  • Filing a complaint would be useless.
  • Fear of retribution from the police if a complaint is filed.
  • There was no easy way to file a complaint.
  • They were required to come to the police station to report the complaint.
  • The atmosphere in the police station was not welcoming.
  • The person doing the interview defended the officers involved.
  • The interview felt like an interrogation.
  • No final report of any investigation was given to the person filing the complaint.

Interview Project

By October 2013, a group convened at the offices of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (Iowa-CCI) to discuss, analyze, and evaluate these responses. The group included:  Rita Bettis, Erica Johnson, Russell Lovell, Fred Van Liew, Arnold Woods, Bridget Fagan-Reidburn and Harvey Harrison.  They planned to initiate a process to interview people who claimed to have been racially profiled by the police department, using an interview form that had obtained by Fred Van Liew from an academic in Pennsylvania. The Des Moines Police Department (DMPD) was advised about the interview process. While the DMPD expressed concern that the process would target police, the project was supported by several local organizations, including AMOS, NAACP, ACLU of Iowa, and the Drake Legal Clinic.

Over the next two years, the project collected thirty stories from people about racial profiling by the Des Moines Police Department. A report on these interviews was produced and delivered to public officials, including the DMPD. Nothing happened in response.

Draft State Legislation

 In the summer and fall of 2015, the NAACP Legal Redress Committee organized a working group to draft legislation to ban racial profiling in Iowa. The group included representatives from the NAACP, AMOS, CCI, the Methodist Conference, the ACLU of Iowa, Interfaith Alliance, and private citizens. The group began with a model ordinance created by the national NAACP and published in Born Suspect, a document that evaluated the work in New York City that led to the end of the practice of stop and frisk. Because the working group was not able to arrive at a consensus on a draft, two separate bills were submitted to the Iowa Legislature at the beginning of the 2016 session. That legislation and subsequent versions have failed to advance.

Concerned Groups Come Together

During the same time frame, between 2014 and 2016, a small advocacy group including representatives from CCI, ACLU of Iowa, AMOS, NAACP, and private citizens met at CCI to review the “Final Report of The President’s Task Force on 21st-Century Policing” that had been produced by the Obama Administration. According to the Final report, the Task Force:

. . . (W)as created to strengthen community policing and trust among law enforcement officers and the communities they serve—especially in light of recent events around the country that have underscored the need for and importance of lasting collaborative relationships between local police and the public. … Given the urgency of these issues, the President gave the task force an initial 90 days to identify best policing practices and offer recommendations on how those practices can promote effective crime reduction while building public trust. In this short period, the task force conducted seven public listening sessions across the country and received testimony and recommendations from a wide range of community and faith leaders, law enforcement officers, academics, and others to ensure its recommendations would be informed by a diverse range of voices.[1]

Review of Practices and Procedures

 In the fall of 2016, the group asked the Des Moines Civil & Human Rights Commission (the “Commission”) to review the practices and procedures of the Des Moines Police Department to determine if the Department’s practices and procedures were in accord with the recommendations of the Obama Administration Task Force. The Commission agreed to this task and approached the Des Moines Police Department.

The Police Department agreed to a review with the Commission through a private process in which the advocacy groups were not allowed to participate. The review process lasted until the fall of 2017. At that time, advocacy groups were invited to a public meeting where the results of the review process were released. In the Appendix of the Task Force Report, the Police Department responded to the findings with color-coded highlighting as follows:

  • Green – the department believed it was already in accordance with the recommendations.
  • Yellow – the recommendations related to other agencies (local or federal); not applicable to the DMPD.
  • White and gray – areas open for discussion and consideration.
  • Red – areas or actions NOT practiced by the DMPD currently.

Read the DMPD Annotations to 20th Century Policing Report here.

Additional Documents Sought

After a brief period of review and discernment, the advocacy group moved forward on two paths:

  1. Filing requests for documents and information under the Iowa Freedom of Information Act.
  2. Organizing the wider community to take action through Iowa-CCI.

The document requests were specifically designed to produce documents and information that would demonstrate if the DMPD was applying the best practices from Obama Administration Report, as claimed in the annotated version of the Appendix. While this process to request documents is ongoing, the results of this initial research can be found here.

Data Collection Reveals Gaps

Data collection revealed gaps in the data available about traffic stops and arrests by the Des Moines Police Department. When a citation is not issued and/or no arrest is made, no record of the event exists in the three databases reviewed. The police department does not maintain any independent records from which this type of information can be readily obtained, if at all. It is, accordingly, fair to conclude that the disparity reflected in the data that is available, understates the problem.

Data Shows Disparities in Policing

 The data that has been analyzed revealed the following types of disparities during stops for traffic violations:

  • A Black person living in Des Moines is about three times more likely to be issued a citation by the Des Moines police than a White person living in Des Moines.
  • While drug usage rates are the same regardless of race, a Black person living in Des Moines is 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for possession of a controlled substance than a White person.
  • A Black person living in Des Moines is almost ten times more likely to be booked for the additional charge of “Interference with Official Acts” than a White person when issued a citation for speeding. Interference with Official Acts is a subjective offense frequently cited as one element of racially biased policing.
  • A Black person living in Des Moines is over three times more likely to be stopped for an equipment violation than a White person, and is then five times more likely to be arrested and booked following the stop.

Important: Equipment violations, and claimed equipment violations, frequently provide a cover for pretextual stops, which are stops by the police where the actual intent is to perform an investigation – including searches without consent or probable cause – beyond the equipment violation.

The data clearly shows that Des Moines has a problem with racially biased policing.

Des Moines Community Engages the Issue

After a meeting in fall 2017, Iowa-CCI planned to hold three public meetings to raise the issue of racially biased policing in Des Moines. The City Council was advised and three members of the City Council were invited to attend these meetings. These meetings were held during the summer of 2018, and three of the City Council members invited attended all three community meetings (Boesen and Mandelbaum); Bill Gray attended just the first meeting and Linda Westergaard attended the third and final meeting only.  Also, approximately 400 members of the Des Moines community the three meetings collectively.

At one community meeting, Iowa-CCI showed the 2018 video of the police stop with Jared Clinton and Montray Little. Members of the community also shared their personal stories of being racially profiled. Each community member attending was asked to identify the most pressing issues with the Des Moines Police as a Black person living in Des Moines and what specifically needed to change.

Ordinance Proposals and Council Response

In November 2018, the six initiatives identified by the community during those meetings were submitted to the City Council, with a request that they be incorporated into an ordinance and adopted by the Council.

Read Community Anti-Racial Profiling Initiative

Following this, representatives from the NAACP submitted a copy of an ordinance based upon the draft statute that the NAACP submitted to the Iowa legislature in 2016 and had recently been adopted by University Heights, Iowa (a suburb of Iowa City, Iowa). This model ordinance and the sixteen points submitted with it were largely ignored by city officials in the dialogue about creating a ban on racial profiling in Des Moines.

By March 2019, no response had been received from the city. Iowa-CCI organized an action for the community to attend the March City Council meeting in large numbers. At the end of the meeting, Council Member Connie Boesen made a motion directing the City Manager to draft an ordinance to ban racial profiling. A copy of that motion can be found here.

City Offers First Draft of an Ordinance

In June, the City Attorney and City Manager delivered a first draft of an ordinance to the Human Rights Commission. In July, community advocates attended a Human Rights Commission meeting and demanded that the draft ordinance be rejected and the issue be revisited by city officials. The Commission agreed and sent it back for further work.

In December 2019, Commission members, Kameron Middlebrooks and Izaah Knox, invited members of the advocacy community to a meeting where they presented the outline of a proposed agreement from the City Manager. That proposal was reduced to writing and delivered to the Human Rights Commission and the interested parties on January 28, 2020.

Negotiations with the City

 By January of 2020, an Alliance of interested parties and organizations had been formed.  The Alliance included a number of organizations and individuals. The leadership consisted of Iowa-CCI, the NAACP, the ACLU of Iowa, Fred Gaddy, and Harvey Harrison. The purpose was to provide a unified voice in order to negotiate with the City about legislation that would adopt and implement the six initiatives that had been submitted to the Council in the fall of 2018.

On February 3 and February 10, 2020, the City Manager met with the Alliance to discuss the proposal from the City. The Alliance expressed its reservations and submitted proposed changes to the City’s documents. The City Manager agreed to continue the dialogue with the Alliance in an effort to find common ground. In spite of that, and without further meetings, the City Manager’s proposal was submitted to the City Council on March 9, 2020. Although notified only days before the council meeting, and in spite of the short notice, the meeting was attended by more than 150 citizens organized by Iowa-CCI.

A Pivotal City Council Meeting

At the meeting on March 9, 2020, the City Council adopted resolutions to:

  • Take the first steps toward the adoption of an Ordinance to Ban Racial Profiling by all City employees and agencies, including the police. Because the ordinance that had been submitted by the City Manager was not acceptable to the alliance, they asked that final consideration and voting be deferred – and it was.
  • Require the City Manager to develop a request for proposals regarding best practices for data collection by the city so that an expert could review the current practices and procedures of city agencies. This study would insure that “…all city employees act in a manner that is devoid of any type of discrimination.”

In addition, the City Manager informally agreed to the following:

  • The study would explicitly incorporate a review of practices and procedures regarding pre-textual stops.
  • The expert would meet with community representatives at least once.
  • The study would make recommendations to the city on transparency of data and public accessibility to data.
  • Require that all city employees participate in training on best practices regarding implicit bias, de-escalation in conflict situations, and cultural competency at least biannually.
  • Establish a Policy and Practice Review Committee consisting of six persons from four different city agencies. The committee to meet at least quarterly to review existing and planned policies and practices and make recommendations to the City Manager to “ensure elimination of existing or potential disparities.” No independent community members were to be a part of this committee.

City Manager Commits to Data Collection Improvements

 Further, in a letter dated March 3, 2020, the City Manager committed to lobby for state legislation that would authorize the Iowa Department of Transportation to imbed race and ethnic data about Iowa drivers in the State computer data system. This means that when a police officer checks a driver’s license, the driver’s race will be displayed. The stated goal is to eliminate the need for officers to make a judgment on the person’s race and ethnicity at the time of the stop. This is a controversial proposal.

Third Draft from the City

While the Ordinance and Resolutions adopted by the City Council at the March 9 meeting represented progress on the Community Initiative, important provisions were still missing.

  • First, pretextual stops were not directly addressed at all. Since the beginning of the Racial Profiling Project, the Police Department and the City Manager argued that pretextual stops are an effective tool for the police and are fully authorized by the Iowa and U.S. Supreme Courts. This is a common response from police around the United States.

However, although the City Manager was correct that the Iowa Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court have both handed down rulings that pretextual stops are not a violation of the United States Constitution or the Iowa constitution, these rulings do not prohibit a state or municipality from banning such stops.

Remember that a pre-textual stop occurs when an officer stops a driver for a traffic violation, which can be as simple as a broken tail light or any one of thousands of possible violations that occur on a regular basis. Even though a stop is made based on a legitimate, if minor, violation of law, the stop becomes pre-textual if the underlying motivation for the stop is based on race or another reason irrelevant to the violation.

People justifiably become upset and angry when stopped for a minor violation, and rather than issuing a citation for the stated purpose of the stop, the officer uses it to initiate and continue an aggressive investigation, with the intent of finding contraband, or something else, that will lead to an arrest. This must stop!

  • Second, there was no progress on the creation of a Citizens Review Board.
  • Third, there was no movement on reducing enforcement for simple possession of marijuana. It has been the long-stated position of the Des Moines Police Department, thatas long as marijuana possession is a crime, it will be enforced by the police as such.

COVID-19 Epidemic Stalls Negotiations

Following the March 9, 2020, City Council meeting, the Alliance continued negotiations with the City in an effort to strengthen the proposals.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down face-to-face meetings and further complicated the negotiations. The response from the City remained essentially the same as it had prior to the March 9 meeting – resistance to any substantive or systemic change.

The Murder of George Floyd

The political landscape changed radically on May 25, 2020, following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis. The protests that followed, in Des Moines and around the country, demanded substantive change to policing practices.

June 8, 2020 – The Next Proposal From the City

On June 8, 2020, the City Manager once again submitted proposals for an ordinance to the City Council without reaching an agreement with the Alliance. The City Manager asked the Council to waive the first and second reading of the proposed ordinance and adopt it at the June 8 meeting. The Alliance objected, having received the proposal from the City Manager at 11:30 A.M. on the morning of the Council meeting. The Council moved ahead with a vote on the first reading of the ordinance but did not waive the second and third readings.

The council meeting was held online over Zoom and Facebook Live, and 1,300 people participated. No precedent exists for this level of attendance at any City Council meeting.

Negotiations Intensify

After the June 8 meeting, the Alliance shifted its approach in the negotiations and became more proactive. Instead of responding to the City’s documents, it began working on an ordinance derived from a bias-free policing protocol that had been adopted by the Des Moines Police Department in January 2019. It also decided that all documents, materials, and correspondence that were submitted to the City Manager would also be sent directly to the mayor and members of the City Council. This shifted the focus of the negotiations from just the City Manager to the entire City Council.

Two weeks of intense negotiations between the Alliance and the City Manager followed, with direct participation and engagement from several City Council members. These negotiations included:

  • Meetings with individual Council members by Alliance representatives and community members.
  • Multiple drafts of documents.
  • Thousands of emails, letters, and phone calls from the community to Council members.
  • “Eleventh-hour” negotiations between the Alliance, led primarily by the NAACP, and the City Manager and City Attorney.

Des Moines City Council Adopts an Unbiased Policing Ordinance

 On June 22, 2020, after sustained community efforts and intense negotiations, the Des Moines City Council adopted an Unbiased Policing Ordinance that contains the following measures:

  • Prohibits biased policing and specifically prohibits racial profiling.
  • Requires the online publication of department policies and procedures.
  • Creates reporting requirements for sworn officers who observe instances of biased policing, racial profiling, or who observe unreasonable use of force by another officer.
  • Identifies a pathway for citizens to file complaints through the Des Moines Human and Civil Rights Commission.
  • Mandates additional training for sworn officers in de-escalation, cultural diversity, cultural competency, and implicit bias.
  • Directs the City Manager to create a Community Policing and Code Enforcement Policy and Practice Review Committee that will include direct community membership.

Here is the Ordinance itself:

Unbiased Policing Ordinance for Des Moines

A thorough analysis of the ordinance can be seen here.

The Council also passed an additional Resolution, entitled Supporting the Decriminalization of Marijuana and Creating A Task Force To Minimize Enforcement For Possession Of Marijuana For Personal Use. A copy can be seen here:

Resolution to Decriminalize Marijuana Form Task Force

 The murder of George Floyd was the spark that lit the flame of widespread protest against the use of excessive force by police. The protests were the final element that pushed the Council to take substantive action on the foundations for change had already been laid. Because of the organizational work initiated by Iowa-CCI, the advocacy community in Des Moines was uniquely situated to focus this outpouring of energy, anger, and grief towards the adoption of a racially profiling ban with substance and accountability.

 Where Do We Go from Here?

The adoption of the Resolutions and Ordinance by the Des Moines City Council will not end racism in our country nor will it change the embedded biases that everyone carries. It will not change the institutional structures that continue to keep oppression in place. It will not change the quiet and persistent work of the white power structure to retain control. Dismantling structures of oppression will require the same level of commitment and hard work by the community over many years that has been demonstrated over the past six years in Des Moines.

The work of dismantling racially biased policing continues.

If you are ready to join in these efforts, read on!

Towards a More Just Future

The measures adopted by the Des Moines City Council will require extensive monitoring and action by the community to ensure that they are implemented in a manner that will benefit the community.

One example is the request for “expert” advice on best practices of data collection.

The Des Moines City Manager will need to be held accountable for promises of collaboration in the March 3, 2020 letter, and for other commitments made that are not yet incorporated into a formal resolution or ordinance.

Old Issues and New Issues

 The issues that were not addressed by the City Manager or the city Council will need to be pursued, including

  • the creation of a Citizens Review Board and a
  • ban on pre-textual stops.

New issues have been raised by the Black Lives Matter movement and the street protests, which must be addressed.

How You Can Help

Here are a few ways in which any interested citizen can participate in bringing about necessary systemic changes:

  • Organize your local community to adopt necessary changes, initiate contact with your state legislators and the Governor’s office to press for needed change.
  • File Freedom of Information requests with your local law enforcement departments and other state agencies to obtain records that will demonstrate whether your department is engaged in racially biased policing. The Iowa Freedom of Information Council has a sample form available.
  • Request that the Iowa Department of Transportation provide records on all citations that have been issued by your city. Booking records are also available and reflect why people have been arrested. In Des Moines, these records clearly demonstrate that Black people are arrested at a much higher rate than White people. No explanation for this disparity has ever been provided by the police or city manager.
  • Encourage the Governor’s Commission on the Status of African-Americans to make progressive recommendations to the Governor’s office for state-wide legislation.
  • Demand total transparency on the community’s right to obtain copies of body camera videos. The state law on access to body cam videos is so muddled that each jurisdiction has the right to deny access to body cam video for any case that is under investigation. This exemption can last forever if the jurisdiction chooses to utilize it. The promise of body cameras is that the community will be able to monitor the police for the benefit of both the police and the public. We must hold our political representatives to this promise.
  • If you have been racially profiled, you can contact Just Voices and  share your story here.
  • Iowa-CCI has sponsored and supported a project for the past five years to collect stories of people who have been racially profiled, assist them with filing complaints with the police department, and direct those with good cases to an attorney who has agreed to take those cases and file lawsuits. Iowa CCI can be contacted at 515-255-0800.
  • Remember that racially-biased policing is only one way the oppression of Black people is maintained by the justice system. The list of changes needed is long, including the elimination of cash bail, restoring voting rights, and protecting other civil rights. Iowa is the last state in the United States, for example, that has a lifetime ban on voting for people who have been convicted of a felony. This disproportionally impacts the Black community.

Build Relationships and Trust

 Finally, we need to build structures and relationships of trust between the community and law enforcement that will interrupt and dismantle the cultural messages allowing police officers to view Black citizens as the “other” and as criminal. Building relationships and trust will interrupt and change the perception in the Black community that law enforcement is an occupying force and not an agent of protection.

We can work together to create a just society free from racial oppression.

These are the words of the dearly departed civil rights icon, Congressman John Lewis, taken from the last essay he wrote before he died on July 17, 2020:

“Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.”


Congressman John Lewis (1940 – 2020)


[1] P. iii