Iowa advocates push for police oversight, accountability

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This column would have been less difficult to write earlier in the week, before Baltimore was engulfed in flames. But it wouldn’t have been as important.

On the surface, Bob Babcock and Felicia Jones have few similarities. Although they both are residents of the Quad Cities, they represent different generations.

Babcock leans on a wealth of hard-earned life experience, and now is of the age when the past often intersects with and gives clarity to the present.

Jones still is figuring out the world, testing how she fits and what type of difference she can make.

On Saturday, April 25, the two stood together at Rock Island Township Hall, a computer presentation as their backdrop, leading a small but engaged group of Quad Cities residents through possible solutions to what appears to be a never-ending and escalating prevalence of violent and fatal police engagements.

Bob Babcock and Felicia Jones would like to see citizens have more oversight of actions by law enforcement. The two Quad Cities residents have held legislative hearings in both Iowa and Illinois in hope of raising awareness.
Bob Babcock and Felicia Jones would like to see citizens have more oversight of actions by law enforcement. The two Quad Cities residents have held legislative hearings in both Iowa and Illinois in hope of raising awareness. (Lynda Waddington/The Gazette)

It was hardly the first time the two have appeared together, and its doubtful to be the last. Each holds his or her own reasons for the interest and activism.

Babcock describes himself as a product of the very public civil rights movement, and selectively shares a catalyst for his involvement — a disturbing incident from his youth. He’s been fighting against oppression and questioning authority his entire life, or so it seems.

His voice quakes and eyes brim with tears as he discusses recent headlines of lives lost during police conflicts, echoes of a past he hoped wouldn’t repeat.

Jones is more a product of her private environment, having seen and personally experienced brutality at the hands of authority. Like her mother, who also spoke at the meeting, Jones openly discusses the violence and law enforcement overreach that paved a path to her activism.

Her tone is matter-of-fact, determination overshadowing emotions. She worries about her daughter and what’s in store for future generations if changes aren’t made.

The two are advocates for reform, hoping to give ordinary citizens more oversight and insight into investigations of law enforcement activities and incidents. Civilian review boards, memorandums of agreement and grand jury enhancements are the focus of their recent presentations.

They stress the need for accountability, noting how existing processes have nearly removed everyday citizens from discussions and investigations. Even when citizens are invited to the table, few jurisdictions have provided tools to give such oversight the teeth needed for change.

On Saturday their presentation repeatedly was sidetracked as audience members voiced personal experiences with law enforcement or asked questions of each other.

A neighborhood fixture, a black businessman, was stopped, presumably for driving too nice a vehicle. Children were traumatized when a parent was cuffed and arrested in their presence.

Yet there are no broad edicts of corruption delivered. Not one person is willing to paint the whole of local police departments with the outcomes of individual incidents, but there is an atmosphere of distrust and wariness. Some people don’t get a fair shake. Some officers haven’t experienced consequences for questionable past actions.

One audience member, a local elected official, offers advice on communication, noting that the phrase African-American can be offensive.

“I’m not African,” he explains. “I’m a black man.”

For all intents and purposes, the presentation has ended, evolving into a conversation woven with the pitfalls of money in politics, ongoing racism and debilitating poverty.

It’s the same conversation that’s taking place in meeting rooms, at diner tables, around barbershop chairs and on street corners throughout the nation. It’s the same conversation that was, at best, slowed or, at worst, stalled by flames and violence in Baltimore, in the wake of yet another funeral.

It’s little wonder such multifaceted challenges and the conversations they spark are difficult. Even in this small gathering, there are points of contention. For some, primarily the people of color in the room, systemic and sometimes unconscious racial bias is the most pressing problem.

For others, poverty is the choking weed that must be pulled. Both of these problems are linked to the influx of money in politics and the difficulty of electing leaders willing to make needed changes.

If there is consensus, it resides in an overpowering sense of urgency. It’s so thick it clings like smoke to those gathered. The burden of injustice cannot be carried forever, and talk provides only temporary relief.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on May 3, 2015. Photo credit: Lynda Waddington/The Gazette