WATERLOO — The city’s police chief this week outlined initiatives he hopes will rebuild trust between his officers and minority residents.
Safety Services Director Dan Trelka addressed the Waterloo City Council on Monday about community policing efforts a week after he and his department came under fire from African-American residents about several use of force incidents and a perceived bias against them by officers.
Those critical of the department were outnumbered at last week’s meeting by those strongly supporting Trelka, who reportedly had told some officers he was being asked to resign.
“We’re seeing a lot of passion in this community right now, and we want to strike the iron while it’s hot,” Trelka said. “We want to bottle that passion and do what we need to do with it to move this city forward.”
Speaking frankly but optimistically — always supporting the successes his officers have achieved in reducing crime — Trelka said he’s working on ways to change the mindset of some officers.
“I just told my command staff I will be delegating more to them, and I have higher expectations from them in regard to our community policing efforts,” he said. “Our command staff gets it, but forcing it down to the lower levels sometimes can be challenging and takes time.
“Our African-American residents don’t want to be policed. They want to be protected, and we need to remember that.”
“Stopping people for burned-out license plates in one area of town — doing six or seven of those a night — is fishing with a net,” he added. “We need to be wiser. We need to be smarter. We need to fish with a pole, and we realize that.”
But Trelka emphasized the department was still going to be pursuing justice against the “worst of the worst” who are perpetuating violence in the community.
“We’re not saying we’re going soft on crime,” he said. “That’s not true at all. We need to hold people accountable.”
Trelka said the department leadership will continue to push the idea “every citizen contact should be an effort to engage in a community policing initiative.”
He plans to increase officer accountability by being as open as employment laws allow about discipline meted out for officers who violate protocols.
“I can do better as the chief of police to talk about the discipline … to the officers,” he said. “(But) we’ve got 123 cops that are doing a darned good job, and in the past year I’ve only had to discipline five or six of them.”
Other plans include increased partnerships with community organizations; decentralizing command authority to give officers more power to make good decisions at the street level; changing hiring procedures to encourage more minority officers to apply for police jobs; and doing a better job of educating the public about police practices and public responsibilities during encounters.
He’s also working to start a police foundation to provide funds for officers to use in community policing efforts. For example, an officer could buy pizza for a sit-down with youths at risk of joining a gang.
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The department also wants to have officers more involved in diversion programs offered through Juvenile Court Services.
Councilman Tom Lind asked whether the police department had utilized any recommendations from a U.S. Department of Justice report issued one year ago. Trelka and former Mayor Buck Clark had sought the department’s assistance.
“We did a lot of it,” Trelka said. “Some we couldn’t afford to do, and others we’re still tackling.”
The Justice Department report called for additional community policing efforts; staffing studies; more training; providing a better process for residents to file complaints; and reviewing the department’s use-of-force policy.
Trelka said he intends to engage a community group, including those critical of his department, to review the department’s policies.
While Trelka said he was not making any excuses, he noted the WPD has a high call volume at 220 calls per day, covers a larger geographic area than many more populous cities and has a lower per-capita staffing level — both patrol and civilian — than national averages.
But he said the department has seen success over the past six years.
From 2009 to 2015, use of force incidents are down 60 percent; complaints against officers are down 43 percent; juvenile arrests are down 44 percent; all arrests are down 23 percent; and the overall crime rate is down 22 percent.
Councilman Steve Schmitt asked why any changes are necessary given those statistics.
“I’m a little bit perplexed,” Schmitt said. “It sounds like we’re doing the right thing, but you’re telling me we’re going to change what we’re doing.”
Trelka noted the city still had an uptick in shootings and a needs to improve community relationships.
“We’re going in the right direction,” he said. “But we need to adjust.”
Mayor Quentin Hart pulled Trelka off his dual role overseeing both police and Waterloo Fire Rescue last week to have him focus exclusively on police issues for the next year.
“This is just a first conversation of many conversations we’re going to have as a council,” Hart said. “We’ve already had a couple … as a community.”