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Public health board seeks role in police reform efforts

Public health board seeks role in police reform efforts

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WATERLOO — Local public health leaders believe they have a role in helping end racism and violence in law enforcement.

The Black Hawk County Board of Health met for two hours Friday with the sheriff, five police chiefs, and an Iowa State Patrol lieutenant to talk about how they can work together as demands for police reform continue across the country.

“Although racism in the context of policing is often seen as a criminal justice issue, the reality is that racism in policing disproportionately affects health outcomes and ultimately all aspects of life for Black individuals and people of color,” said the Rev. Mary Robinson, who chairs the health board.

“Racism and police violence are public health crises,” she added. “So how can we begin to help solve them together?”

Robinson’s words are backed by the American Medical Association, American College of Physicians and American Academy of Pediatrics, which have all issued statements declaring racism a public health issue exacerbated by instances of police brutality.

Robinson cited research showing Blacks were three times more likely to die at the hands of law enforcement than whites. But decades of policing in Black communities have perpetuated adverse socio-economic conditions that also lead to severe health issues.

The law enforcement leaders voiced a willingness to work with the health department. Most of them are already working on changes driven by nationwide protests after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

Sheriff Tony Thompson said he hopes the health department can help open up lines of conversation with marginalized communities.

“Where we really have to focus on gaining and earning engagement and to responsibly respond are with those people who don’t want to engage us, who don’t feel comfortable engaging us,” Thompson said.

He noted the COVID-19 pandemic has already helped forge that relationship.

“Probably never before in the history of Black Hawk County has health and law enforcement been so intertwined and so interconnected as we are right now, and as we have been over the last four months,” he said.

Waterloo Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald has been implementing aggressive changes in his department to address procedural justice since he was hired a month ago.

“Now is the time for critical cultural change within police agencies,” said Fitzgerald, who acknowledged past methods of policing has created economic inequality that exists today.

“It keeps the proverbial knee on the neck of certain communities of color throughout the United States,” he said, noting an arrest years ago can impact future generations of the same family.

Several police chiefs at the meeting spoke of how the backlash against law enforcement has been difficult and stressful for them too.

“I’ve been getting it from both sides, being an African American and an officer,” said Hudson Police Chief Dan Banks. “It’s taken a toll on me mentally.”

The chiefs also encouraged those groups calling for change to educate themselves on police responsibilities and spend time looking at reforms already underway.

“We’re willing to take a step back and look at what we’re doing and what we can change,” said La Porte City Police Chief Chris Brecher. “Will you give us that opportunity, give us a chance to look?”

Acting Cedar Falls Police Chief Craig Berte, Dunkerton Police Chief Joe Stafford, and Iowa State Patrol Lt. Brian Beenen also participated in the meeting.

County Health Director Nafissa Cisse Egbuonye said she hoped Friday’s meeting will lead to more interaction between the agencies moving forward.

“This is truly a relationship of solidarity so that we can do a better job of serving our communities,” she said.

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