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Recent editorials published in Iowa newspapers

September 3, 2018

Des Moines Register. August 30, 2018

Video suggests officer profiled black men before needlessly stopping them.

The video is painful. It makes you indignant, uncomfortable, incredulous. It made me want to cry. It shows two young black men out for a drive in a decent Des Moines neighborhood, in a decent car, on an ordinary July night. No hoodies, no blaring music, no excessive speed. Nothing, from all outside appearances, that should have attracted police attention.

Yet a police car starts tailing them and soon compels them to pull over. Two officers get out and approach the driver, Montray Little, who puts his hands up. Three times, Officer Kyle Thies asks Little if the car is his. Each time, Little says no, that it’s a rental because his is in the shop. Thies then wants to know how he starts it.

He asks what Little and his passenger, Jared Clinton, were doing. Just hanging out, Little says. Thies says he can smell marijuana. Are there weapons, he wants to know. It doesn’t matter how many times Little says no. Motioning to Clinton, who sits on the passenger side, legs straight out, hands on his knees, the officer quips, “Your buddy is giving me the idea that maybe he’s got a gun.”


It’s easy to see why this video is central to a racial-profiling lawsuit filed this week against Des Moines police. It’s like watching a tightrope walk, in which one wrong move by Clinton or Little could give the officers grounds to arrest them. One motion perceived as threatening could lead to guns being drawn. But these young men must know better than to make one. They must have been given “the talk.” Both are respectful. When told to exit the car and placed in handcuffs, neither puts up resistance.

Thies inspects the inside of the car, poring through the takeout food bags. He puts a cuffed Little inside the squad car and continues pressing him to say there were marijuana “shakes” on the ground, and to “admit” he was around people smoking weed. “You think that I’m lying?” Thies asks. “Did I make that up about the smell of marijuana?”

Is there a right answer? If Little said yes to defend himself, he’d be insulting the officer. If he said no, he’d be confessing falsely. One wrong answer could permanently change this young man’s future.

“Usually when we see that, where someone’s sitting there like that, there’s a gun,” Thies persists.

Sitting like what? Rigid, tense, facing forward, afraid to move? How is one supposed to be sitting after being pulled over for no apparent reason?

“Driving While Black is no indication of having a gun,” said NAACP President Betty Andrews at a news conference Monday.

“You were just making it seem like something crazy was going on,” Thies insists.

Don’t. Don’t respond, you are thinking. Clinton and Little don’t. It ends as anti-climatically as it began. No charges, much ado about nothing. But two more African-American men now have been given reason to distrust police.

Police Chief Dana Wingert didn’t return my call to discuss how such situations might be avoided. He’s named, along with officers Thies and Natalie Heinemann, in a civil rights lawsuit against the police department brought on behalf of Little and Clinton. I understand that anything he says could be used as evidence.

The police department spokesman told reporters, “You can’t tell by looking at one video that it’s racial profiling. There are a lot of different things going on in there.” But none of them explains the stop itself. Certainly not a marijuana smell or a passenger’s body language inside the other car. The stop comes across, rather, as what attorney Russ Lovell of the NAACP legal redress committee calls a “pretextual traffic stop.” The NAACP is a plaintiff in a lawsuit against that practice.

The NAACP, ACLU and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement want legislation passed outlawing racial profiling in Iowa, as more than 30 states have done. A bill proposed last year (Senate File 2280) didn’t advance.

It’s difficult to even collect data on the race of those stopped by police to illustrate disparities. Police don’t include it on the grounds that some people don’t like being asked. But other states have found ways around that. Beginning in 2002, Nebraska allowed the state criminal justice commission to develop and distribute a model racial-profiling prevention policy for law enforcement. All agencies must collect data on all motor-vehicle stops, including the reason for them, any arrests or charges and the subjects’ race or ethnicity as the officer perceives it.

Now, armed with 10 years of data, Nebraska ACLU’s Executive Director Danielle Conrad says, “There is a persistent and unfair amount of racial profiling in Nebraska. People of color are over-represented at every stage of the criminal justice system.”

It’s significant that anti-profiling legislation would have passed in a state as red as Nebraska before ours. But as Conrad noted, legislators there are not elected on the basis of party affiliation, so it’s easier to find consensus on such issues.

And in Dallas, Texas, 12 jurors just did something one Texas paper called nearly impossible in America: They unanimously convicted a police officer, Roy Oliver, of murder. He had fired on unarmed 15-year-old Jordan Edwards, who was black, in April 2017, through a car widow. A video disproved Oliver’s claim he was protecting a fellow officer.

Not all officers are to blame, says Andrews; the NAACP has good relations with many, including the chief. But Des Moines has a way to go before people of color can feel as free as white ones to drive around their town without police interference. And that will take more than goodwill. It’ll take hard data and laws with teeth in them, that hold profilers accountable.


Quad City Times. August 31, 2018.

Abandon the caucus, Democrats

Iowa’s presidential caucus is an infected wound, one that can’t be fixed with gauze and athletic tape.

But the Democratic National Committee on Saturday told thousands of disenfranchised Iowans to suck it up and deal.

Yeah, presidential caucuses are quaint. They speak to nostalgia. And they’re a kitschy component of the electoral branding that maintains Iowa’s vaunted “first in the nation” status.

Reporters love showing up on some dark February night at a high school in Burlington or a VFW hall in Eldridge and writing about people spending hours standing in corners and horse-trading votes.

Caucuses make for good stories in a country that pines for the good ol days. They do not, however, do right by the voter. In fact, caucuses are a downright affront to democratic principles.

Caucuses disempower the rank-and-file and suppress turnout. They’re a mechanism of self-selection that elevates partisan insiders at the expense of regular voters.

The DNC’s rule changes were, in and of themselves, an admission that caucuses are broken and keep voters away, and Iowa’s Democratic brass are thumbing their noses at even those half-measures. That’s a real problem for a party that claims to stand for voter access. Among the changes were a mandate that caucus states create a yet-to-be-defined absentee ballot system. Another rule change would require state parties to report actual vote totals, instead of the opaque, intentionally confusing delegate counts now offered up.

Just 17 percent of registered voters in Iowa turned out to 2016′s Republican and Democratic presidential caucuses, say the data crunchers at Rasmusenn Reports. And that’s one of the better results among the eight states where caucuses still dominate the nomination process. Turnout hovered around 12 percent in most caucus states in 2016. Even the lamest primary turnouts broke into the 30s. Several primary states had turnout rates well north of 40 percent.

Iowa already has a mechanism for standard primary elections. The two major parties use primaries to select nominees for the vast majority of elected offices. About 5,000 more Iowa Democrats turned out for June’s gubernatorial primary than 2016′s presidential caucus. And, let’s be honest, a race for governor isn’t nearly as sexy as a presidential cycle, regardless of what the field looks like.

Caucuses are at night during the work week, a de-facto ban on second-shift laborers. They drag on for hours, meaning low-income parents have to hire a babysitter just to vote. And they require voters to sacrifice a certain anonymity that’s fundamental in most primary states.

In fact, low turnout is a fundamental feature of the anachronistic caucus system for selecting a party’s preferred candidate. Since almost no one shows up, it’s about a campaign’s ability to organize its base and turn it out to specific, key locations.

How cynical.

Iowa’s presidential caucus is about branding. It mobilizes partisans and silences the rank-and-file. The price tag is too high, no matter how ingrained caucuses are to Iowa’s carefully crafted identity.

Caucuses are an affront to the democratic process, which purposefully disenfranchise thousands of Iowans.

And it’s those Iowans who are left to suffer the consequences when, as in 2016, the two major parties force only unacceptable choices down their throats.


Waterloo-Cedar Fall Courier. August 27, 2018

Immediate politicizing of tragedies is new normal

Mollie Tibbetts’ death was politicized almost immediately.

But that was nothing new, for better or worse.

Tibbetts, a 20-year-old Iowa woman from Brooklyn, had been missing for 35 days when on Tuesday her alleged killer led authorities to her body.

As soon as the news broke the alleged killer was possibly living in the U.S. illegally — the killer’s lawyer disputed the claim — Tibbetts’ death fueled a renewal of calls for an overhaul of federal immigration laws.

And it wasn’t just at the grassroots level. Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds’ statement, sent out that evening, concluded with the following: “As Iowans, we are heartbroken, and we are angry. We are angry that a broken immigration system allowed a predator like this to live in our community, and we will do all we can bring justice to Mollie’s killer.”

In a joint statement on Tibbetts’ death, Iowa’s U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, also Republicans, called for action on federal immigration policy that first night. Their joint statement said Tibbetts’ death could have been prevented. “Too many Iowans have been lost at the hands of criminals who broke our immigration laws. We cannot allow these tragedies to continue,” the statement said.

This was all within hours of when Tibbetts’ death was first announced. But that’s not a new phenomenon. In fact, it’s the new normal.

School shootings, for example, are followed immediately by a renewed debate over gun control laws.

Whether it’s a product of the 24-hour news cycle, social media, a combination of the two or other factors, the politicization of tragedies no longer waits. It is immediate.

“I think issues boil up very fast in any situation,” Ernst told reporters last week.

Ernst also expressed hope these passionate debates in the immediate aftermath of tragedies eventually give way to a reasonable debate over policies that may require attention.

A cynic might say those prospects aren’t encouraging given previous examples and the polarized politics in the federal government.

One can hope.

Ernst called for the passage of an immigration enforcement bill for which she has been advocating, but acknowledged it would not have helped in Tibbetts’ case.

“I think we need to honor Mollie. We need to find ways to prevent tragedies like this,” Ernst said. “Is it an illegal immigration issue? Is it a stalking issue? What are the issues that need to be addressed? We need to focus on those different issues.

“Whatever went wrong in our system allowed this beautiful young woman to be killed.”


Fort Dodge Messenger. August 28, 2018.

Schools are starting — drive safely

The fairs are over or soon will be. It won’t be that long before cooler weather becomes the norm rather than the exception — summer is drawing to a close.

Even though the calendar shows another month of summer to be enjoyed, for students vacation days are about to end. All across Iowa young folks are heading back to school this week, within the next week or so or are already there.

That makes it especially important that each of us resolve to keep our streets and highways safe during a time of year when youngsters are present on or near roadways at some of the busiest parts of the day for motor traffic.

Paying heed to a few safety tips can help prevent the new school year from turning tragic.

. Observe speed limits and always drive with proper regard to weather and road conditions.

. Wear seat belts. They save lives and buckling up is the law.

. Pay close attention to what is going on around you. With more youngsters en route to or from school at busy commuting times, the chance that a child will dash into the path of a vehicle is real. Be ready to avert tragedy.

. Avoid driving while fatigued.

. Remember that alcohol and driving never mix. If you imbibe, make sure that the driving is done by someone who stays unimpaired.

. Stay off your cell phones while driving and never even consider texting.

None of these admonitions should sound surprising.

Most of us have heard similar cautions before.

Even so, many accidents could be avoided if we all exercised common sense and made personal commitments to keep ourselves and others safe.

As schools open, let’s all pledge that no seats will become vacant due to our carelessness on the road.


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