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No reason to fear police reaction after choking incident

BY WILL MATTESSICH | DECEMBER 02, 2011 7:20 AM

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When I first heard about the incident involving a University of Iowa student allegedly choking an Iowa City police officer who approached him because he was reportedly disrupting traffic, I was somewhat worried the event might cause police to behave more harshly toward Iowa City youth in the future.

It's a reasonable fear. Police officers are human, and hearing about a colleague being attacked by a student might cause officers to become slightly more wary when patrolling at night and cause them to pre-emptively act more harshly to prevent situations such as the incident from occurring. In addition, police are often known for their solidarity with each other, sometimes referred to as "The Thin Blue Line." After news of a colleague being put in a choke-hold, would police feel they need to send a message to the community in some way to protect their personnel?

The evidence points to no. Police spokeswoman Sgt. Denise Brotherton told me over the phone that the department is not going to change any operational policies in light of the incident. "We can never guarantee that someone is not going to do something like this," she said. "You can have all the training in the world, but there's always the chance that something like this might happen."

When asked if there were any concerns that officers might behave more harshly toward the public in the future, Brotherton responded unequivocally that there was no concern about this happening.

The Iowa City police make sure to hire the right people and maintain a professional environment that doesn't allow vendettas or retaliation to occur, she said.

"We can never make the decision not to help someone," she said. "If someone assaults me, and next week they get in a car crash, I help them."

Many Iowa students I've met in class or in the dorms have negative attitudes about the police. That's understandable for young people. It's hard to feel affection about the people who sternly ask you to show identification outside liquor stores or handcuff you and bring you to jail when you're being too loud on the sidewalk, but there is no evidence showing that the Iowa City police are loose cannons, and research shows that public attitudes about police are often distorted, influenced more by pre-existing attitudes or secondhand accounts of police-citizen interaction than by direct interaction with police.

Records from the Iowa City Police Citizens Review Board — comprising five civilians not affiliated with the police — show that the force is not known to attract complaints and has above-average departmental accountability and transparency. From the past three years' annual reports, obtained from the City Clerk's Office, only two out of 86 allegations — comprising 15 separate complaints — of misconduct were sustained. Neither of the allegations involved excessive force or alleged breach of a citizen's rights.

The Occupy protests across the country have produced some alarming examples in the news of police using excessive force against citizens, most notably the ransacking of Occupier structures or unnecessary uses of pepper spray. Many have used these events to condemn all police officers. But a comprehensive report on police use of force published by the Department of Justice showed that only a few "bad apples" are responsible for the majority of police misconduct. The officers who perform their duties by the book don't make the news.

Should the citizens of Iowa City place complete faith in the police to always do the right thing? Absolutely not. Residents and the citizens' review board need to always be on the lookout for incidents of the police overstepping their authority, incidents that may occur but go unrecognized or unreported. But there is no reason to believe that the Iowa City public will experience different treatment from the City police in response to a student allegedly choking an officer. This incident should not be allowed to harm the relationship between the community and the Police Department.


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