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Violence tests police

BY REGINA ZILBERMINTS | APRIL 15, 2009 7:38 AM

Violence against men
on the rise


The Daily Iowan provides a closer look at the issue of male-on-male violence in Iowa City.

Part 1: Issue overview — A look into how attacks downtown have changed.

Part 2: Police tactics — What police are doing to prevent and respond to the assaults.

Part 3: Role of the UI — What UI officials are saying about the violence.

A young man awoke to bystanders sitting him up against a planter on the Pedestrian Mall in the early hours of April 4. He’d been knocked unconscious and suffered a broken jaw.

The 28-year-old was attacked early that morning, just as thousands of people were pouring out of bars onto the Pedestrian Mall. No police officer saw the incident, and the alleged victim didn’t go to police until Sunday afternoon. In the interim, no witness had reported it.

In response to a string of random and seemingly unrelated assaults involving men in the downtown area, Iowa City and UI police are collaborating to assign more officers to the Pedestrian Mall, where many attacks have occurred.

Despite the effort, understaffing of the Iowa City police force coupled with the lack of viable witnesses make dealing with the violence extremely difficult, said Iowa City Police Chief Sam Hargadine. Because of these obstacles, most of the cases remain unsolved.

“To most of these fights, there are witnesses, but none are coming forward,” Hargadine said.
Particularly in the chaos of downtown, passersby tend to see an assault as a normal occurrence, at times even considering it “entertainment.”

“The crowd feeds on it,” said Iowa City Sgt. Troy Kelsay. “Because they’re so common, nobody cares anymore.”

And after a fight, witnesses often fade into the crowd, leaving police with an unconscious victim on the ground.

Officials stressed witnesses should not risk injury by jumping into the fight, but in the age of cell phones, calling 911 with a description of the combatants and the direction they fled helps officers immensely when they arrive on scene.

Frequently, officers can’t immediately gather information from victims, either because of the extent of their injuries or because the incident is reported days later.

And that diminishes the police’s chances for success in solving these crimes, Hargadine said.

Some local bargoers worry their state of inebriation might get them into trouble if they were to call police about an incident. But both Hargadine and Kelsay said neither has heard of it happening.

“If you are in the crowd and can shed light on what’s going on, by all means, come forward,” Hargadine said. “We need any kind of information, any kind of lead we can get.”

Kelsay said Iowa City police are increasing the number of press releases regarding violence downtown in the hope someone may come forward.

“We are trying to capitalize on the interest in violence against males,” Kelsay said. “We’re trying to change the attitude that ‘I don’t want to get involved.’ ”

Police are also exploring putting cameras downtown and utilizing the CrimeStoppers program — which offers monetary rewards for information relating to crimes and can be used anonymously.

Increasingly detailed descriptions in releases given to the media have resulted in more tips, authorities said.

Public involvement is essential, officials said, because the Iowa City police simply don’t have the resources to place enough officers downtown to witness every assault.

Iowa City police have an authorized strength of 75 officers. But between new recruits at the law-enforcement academy, injuries, and military service, the force is operating with 67.

Sixteen officers are assigned to late-night patrol, said Iowa City police Lt. Bill Campbell, though up to a third of the department may be off at any given time, Hargadine said. Seven of those officers are generally assigned to downtown.

Kelsay said the department has seen an increase in the number of calls for service in the greater Iowa City area, meaning the police can no longer assign as many officers exclusively to the Pedestrian Mall, where many recent attacks have occurred. In light of this year’s budget cuts, that will not change anytime soon.

“We’re not getting ahead,” Hargadine said. “We’re barely breaking even.”

Even with budget restraints, Iowa City and UI police were able to pay four additional officers overtime to patrol the Pedestrian Mall on the nights of April 10 and 11. With the increased patrolling, UI police arrested Rick Clifford, 29, of Cedar Rapids, and charged him with assaulting another male on the 100 block of Iowa Avenue. Hargadine said the increase in officers will continue.

But in a city where a “moderate” number of people downtown can be up to 1,000 and where bars frequently reach capacity on weekends, the ratio of people downtown to the number of officers is staggering, Campbell said.

“When we’re in that two-hour window around when bar close is happening, some of those times I could use twice as many officers,” he said.

To decide where to assign officers, he said, he examines where he anticipates the most activity, particularly in terms of potential violent crime because that puts both the public and officers at risk. He must maintain a balance of officers in cars and on foot, and the recent opening of several bars in the southern part of Iowa City has forced him to further split his force.

“It’s becoming increasingly difficult for us to keep up with things we’re seeing with the number of officers we have,” Campbell said.

Many students, including several who have been attacked, complain police’s priority is inside the bars, where they write PAULAs, and not on the street. In defense, Hargadine said alcohol enforcement goes to the root cause of the issue.

“[Alcohol] is tied to everything that occurs,” he said.

Campbell agreed, pointing out officers in bars have as large of a presence downtown as those on the street, and most violent activity occurs around bar close when officers are already outside.

But, he said, “We can’t have a cop on every street corner.” Further, many assaults happen in the blocks surrounding downtown rather than directly in front of bars.

Last year, when attacks on women became a common occurrence by a man, or men (dubbed by police as the “groper”), police reallocated their resources. The investigation included placing decoys on the streets, paying officers overtime to increase patrols, and reassigning patrols to problem areas. Some question why the recent spate of male-on-male violence hasn’t received the same kind of focus.

Hargadine said that while he is looking at similar tactics, the reduced budget and increase in calls from other parts of the city make that largely impossible.

UI law student Cody Kiroff and UI senior Brian LaGro, both of whom suffered life-threatening or life-altering injuries in local attacks within the last year, said communication with the police was particularly difficult, something Hargadine acknowledged.

These assaults are occurring during the late-night shift, which means the investigators assigned to them also work late-night hours. Kiroff complained about getting 11 p.m. phone calls from police investigators as he was trying to heal from numerous facial fractures that still affect his vision six months later. Brian LaGro’s father, Phillip LaGro, said it was almost impossible to contact the investigator in charge of his son’s case.

In response to victim complaints on this issue, Hargadine said the department is working to improve internal communication, and each case is being sent to the head investigator, making it easier for victims to contact police about their case. Additionally, more assault cases are being given to investigators rather than being handled solely by patrol officers.

Still, some men are not expecting their cases to be solved quickly.

“I’m expecting it to take awhile,” said UI sophomore Leland Sims, who was attacked by a group of random men at the intersection of Governor Street and Iowa Avenue on March 18.

Kevin Ozeroff — who suffered from double vision for months after being assaulted near the intersection of Market and Gilbert Streets in October 2008 while trying to walk away from a confrontation — agreed with Sims.

“How are you going to find a guy in the entire city?” he said.


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