'Flexing power on a Black man': Iowa City political leaders criticize police for arrest of TRC chair

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Mohamed Traore's arrest drew wide criticism of the Iowa City Police Department from city officials.

Traore, who is the Iowa City Truth and Reconciliation Commission's chair, was arrested after a meeting Nov. 4 at City Hall on a two-year-old operating while intoxicated charge for which he hadn't served time in jail. The arrest comes as the temporary city commission tries to help address systemic racism and may make recommendations on how to reform the police department.

Reactions during the Nov. 16 Iowa City Council meeting and the Nov. 18 TRC meeting ranged from criticizing law enforcement to pointing out the obvious political implications of the arrest. Emails and arrest reports obtained by the Press-Citizen from the Johnson County Sheriff's Office and the ICPD also give insight into why the arrest happened.

More: Johnson County health officials warn of rising COVID-19 cases ahead of Thanksgiving

Emails reveal details of arrest; 'this was not premeditated,' city manager says

The Press-Citizen, through an open-records request, received email exchanges between Iowa City resident Annie Tucker, the director of Mediation Services of Eastern Iowa, and Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness.

Tucker, who was present during Traore's arrest, emailed Lyness to say Traore was surprised to hear he had a warrant and was told by the officers, who did not have a copy of the warrant at hand, that it was probably for unserved jail time. The officers also told Traore the Johnson County Sheriff's Office asked for him to be picked up.

No emails obtained by the Press-Citizen indicate that a request was sent from the sheriff's office or another agency ordering ICPD to carry out the warrant for Traore's arrest.

Johnson County Sheriff Brad Kunkel said that his office did not make any request to have Traore arrested and that he didn't know why the warrant was never served sooner.

The ICPD news release after Traore's arrest acknowledged the warrant could have been addressed in a more private manner removed from the context of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission meeting to avoid the message it sent to the community.

An email from ICPD Watch Commander Jerry Blomgren dated the same day as the arrest said two officers served the warrant and “were very professional.” Blomgren wrote that he and another officer stood nearby and did not need to intervene because Traore “went peacefully.”

Iowa City Manager Geoff Fruin sent updates to all seven city councilors plus Megan Alter and Shawn Harmsen, who were elected to the council this month.

“From what we have gathered so far there is no evidence officers were waiting for the (TRC) meeting to conclude or that this was at all a premeditated arrest,” Fruin wrote.

Fruin told the recipients a few of the city's officers became aware of the warrant on Traore in August. He said it is not routine for the city to serve these types of warrants and that this was a missed opportunity for the city to have a more positive interaction.

Fruin said he hopes the city can learn from this situation.

In another email exchange between Fruin and Harmsen, Fruin said he and Police Chief Dustin Liston had spoken with Traore and expressed their regret and hope that they can all move forward in a positive fashion.

Harmsen responded that he found the news of Traore's arrest “disturbing.”

“This absolutely smacks of an officer conducting an arrest in a time, place and manner that has everything to do with flexing power on a Black man who is a vocal police critic in a way to guarantee maximum embarrassment and nothing to do with protecting the public from any kind of imminent threat,” Harmsen wrote Fruin.

Mohamed Traore poses for a photo, Friday, March 5, 2021, in downtown Iowa City, Iowa. The Iowa City Truth and Reconciliation Commission elected Traore to serve as its new chair and commissioner.

Tucker sent an email to the TRC commissioners updating them on how they can contact Traore. She also took the time to criticize the situation.

“To me, all of this is flagrant 'power and control', which is the hallmark of and motivation of domestic abusers. Power and control at the systemic level,” she wrote. “I think there is a lot to be talked about and dealt with about how this occurred.”

Truth and Reconciliation commissioners react to arrest; 'my body shivers'

Traore addressed his arrest again at the Nov. 18 meeting. He said drunk driving is never OK, but he hopes people understand that is not who he is anymore. He said he wants to put the 2019 charges behind him because he leads a different life than he used to.

“For whatever it is that the city and police department want to say on it, honestly no offense to you all, but I don't really care,” he said. “I don't know that all of you truly want to ask, because if you did there is no way you would have done what you did after that last meeting.”

TRC Commissioner Wangui Gathua, who was with Traore when he was arrested, said the message of Traore's arrest was heavy for people like her on top of other high-profile cases happening around the country like the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse in Wisconsin, the trial against the men who killed Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and a trial for the murder of Michael Williams in Grinnell.

Gathua said seeing Traore, a young Black man, in between two police officers at the steps of city hall was threatening and triggering. She said the timing of the arrest was clearly meant to intimidate and she was even told by friends to leave the TRC because it is dangerous work.

“In the time I think of all this, my body shivers,” she said. “I'm working on the historical mistrust of colonization in Africa, slave trade in the Americas of Black bodies.”

Gathua said, while some people say those historical events happened centuries ago, the trauma still affects her and her grandchild. She also pointed to recent protests at Iowa City West High School over racist social media posts.

TRC Vice Chair Amel Ali said what happened to Traore was horrible and the arrest was “disgusting.”

“I don't think anyone disagrees that drunk driving isn't ideal,” she said. “It is clearly someone was looking you up and someone wanted to give you a little shake in your boots. Whether they admit it or not, I don't really care. The facts are so obvious.”

Ali said she was scared to drive to the TRC meeting and made her boyfriend drive her.

“It makes me shake. I don't want to have any interaction with police,” she said. “The fact that that happened shows what they're capable of.”

Ali added she thinks there needs to be some form of accountability because of the arrest and thinks it will scare people away from participating in the commission's work.

Iowa City councilors react to arrest; 'is that a system that is sustainable?'

At the Nov. 16 Iowa City Council meeting, Councilors Janice Weiner, Mazahir Salih and Laura Bergus each addressed the arrest.

Weiner said police need to change how they handle situations like Traore's to build a better community police model. Weiner said she wants the city to focus on community building and judgement on what constitutes public safety. She suggested someone could have contacted Traore to alert him of the two-year-old warrant instead of arresting him in such a public setting.

“Be aware of the optics, assuming there's not an emergency situation or some threat of violence or someone potentially fleeing,” she said.

Salih said the arrest did not help build trust in the BIPOC community.

“I think we need, as a city, to really look closely at this,” she said. “Especially as a police department, I hope this will be eye-opening for many things that happen the way they do and continue to happen to certain people in the community.”

Bergus, at the close of the meeting, said she wants to presume good intent on behalf of the ICPD and doesn't want to believe Traore's arrest was a political message. But she said the city needs to think about how the arrest reflects on the larger criminal justice system.

Bergus said this kind of arrest should not happen to anyone. She said that, like the events of June 2020, when tear gas was used on protesters by police, the system relies on discretion to be humane.

“I really challenge us to think, 'Is that a system that is sustainable or safe for our entire community?' Or can we work together to look for alternatives to that system,” she said.

George Shillcock is the Press-Citizen's local government and development reporter covering Iowa City and Johnson County. He can be reached at GShillcock@press-citizen.com and on Twitter @ShillcockGeorge

This article originally appeared on Iowa City Press-Citizen: Iowa City police, political leaders spar over arrest of TRC chair

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