[Source: “Giving a hand instead of a ticket: Officer works to solve problems on new downtown beat,” Press Citizen, 2 September 2013, by Josh O’Leary]
It was another boiling August day and Iowa City’s pedestrian mall was filling up for the lunch hour when, within 30 seconds of each other, two people hurried up to a patrolman on duty, concerned about a man down the block.
“It looks like he’s about ready to die,” the second man told Officer David Schwindt, who was making his way to the scene.
Near the Englert Theatre, Schwindt found a shirtless and groggy young guy hunched over on a bench. It was clear that more than just the heat was taking a toll on him. The man, whom Schwindt addressed by name, told the officer he was just sleeping.
After a couple more questions, Schwindt let him be. He had seen him in this conditionbefore. “When he’s sober, he’s a super nice guy,” Schwindt said, walking away.
For the past eight months, Schwindt has been getting to know many of the people who spend their days on the streets in downtown Iowa City. Some are battling drug and alcohol addictions, some are fighting mental illness, some are homeless and some are prone to erratic behavior. Loud arguments, aggressive panhandling and open drug use are among the problems.
Schwindt is the Iowa City Police Department’s downtown foot patrolman, a new beat created in January through the city’s partnership with the Iowa City Downtown District aimed at addressing what some call an escalation in troubling behavior in the ped mall area.
Business people fear the behavior is chasing away customers, and city leaders worry that it’s harming efforts to transform downtown into a more attractive shopping and entertainment hub. Others, though, have denounced a set of new downtown restrictions going before the city council this summer as a war on the homeless.
Schwindt patrols Tuesdays through Saturdays during daytime business hours, spending much of his shift at the corner of Washington and Dubuque streets. It’s at this entrance to the ped mall where he and others say the problems have been largely concentrated this past year.
Before the creation of the new beat, officers patrolled downtown in squad cars as part of a larger coverage area. Schwindt works on foot or bike in the ped mall and surrounding downtown area, including the Northside Marketplace.
“If you’re in a squad car driving down Washington and you see someone biking on the sidewalk, you don’t want to stop a car, block traffic, turn on your emergency lights and get out and address that,” said Schwindt, who has spent 12 of his 16 years as an officer in Iowa City. “So we never really had that proactive patrol of the minor crimes down here.”
After checking on the man on the park bench, Schwindt asked a group hanging out at the corner of Washington and Dubuque to turn down a laptop that was blasting music — a violation of an ordinance prohibiting amplified sound. Schwindt also informed the laptop’s owner, Gabriel Mathers, that it was against city code to be seated on this sidewalk.
After he complied, Mathers, who said he was hitchhiking his way back to Oregon and had been sleeping downtown for about a week, said most of the people in the ped mall were, like him, not wanting to cause trouble.
“Most people that I’ve met down here are pretty good people,” Mathers said.
Schwindt opened a pack attached to his police bike and pulled out pair of socks, which he gave to a woman in Mathers’ group. Schwindt buys packs of socks, or has them given to him, that he hands out when he notices people need them.
“You can do a lot of bridge building with a pair of fresh, clean socks,” Schwindt said.
Around the corner, Schwindt warns a couple of bicyclists that they can’t ride through the ped mall. And along Dubuque Street, near Prairie Lights, he asks a man seated on a light pole if he had water and was staying cool.
Schwindt said he rarely gives out tickets and has not had a single incident that’s required him to file a use-of-force report this year. Instead, he said he would rather work with people — whether it’s connecting them with local resources or simply explaining the sometimes arcane laws specific to downtown — rather than involving them in the criminal justice system. For every ticket he writes, he guesses he gives 99 warnings.
“When I started this position, I thought to myself, ‘What is it I’m trying to accomplish?’ ” Schwindt said. “It’s a clean and safe downtown, and to make people more comfortable. You’re really not going to give that feeling if every time someone comes down here to shop or have dinner or bring their family to the library, they see the police arresting someone or writing tickets. That’s not a real friendly environment. Whether I’m giving somebody the second warning or 20th warning, that gives the feeling I think a lot of people are looking for.”
Schwindt also has gotten to know downtown’s business owners, making it one of his first tasks this past winter to sit down with each shopkeeper to ask what their concerns are and what the the police department could be doing better.
Police Chief Sam Hargadine said Schwindt has done a good job of building relationships in an area where police often are caught in the middle.
“There are those who want the whole thing cleaned up, and there are others who are advocating for the poor and homeless,” Hargadine said. “We’re trying to walk that delicate tightrope of accommodating everybody. Dave is a problem solver, and that’s what that takes.”
Hargadine said the police department received a $250,000 federal grant that allowed it to fund the downtown beat and one other community officer position for the next three years. The Downtown District, is providing a $10,000 annual contribution, as well.
Karen Kubby, who co-owns Beadology on Washington Street, said the Downtown District’s financial support has been a good investment.
Kubby said while some officers who have worked downtown in the past have taken a heavy-handed enforcement approach, Schwindt has been a community builder.
“In terms of people who are part of the street culture of the ped mall, he knows their name, he knows their stories,” Kubby said. “He knows when someone has a mental illness and because of their short-term memory they can’t remember where they can smoke and can’t smoke. So he’s patient and firm with them in a kind way.”
Astrid Bennett, co-owner of the Iowa Artisans Gallery at Washington and Dubuque streets, has been frustrated the past few years about the behavior outside her store, which she said has affected both her customers and staff. She said the addition of a downtown patrolman gives shopkeepers an immediate outlet for assistance.
“I think it’s made a big difference having someone right there we can call if there’s an incident or any concerns, that we have a pathway we can go if there’s something that’s worrisome or annoying,” Bennett said.
Schwindt sees his role as helping people on both side of the fence. Twice, for instance, people he has gotten to know in the ped mall have asked him for help kicking their synthetic drug addictions.
“I’ve walked them down to the police department, grabbed a squad car, took them to the hospital and sat with them through the whole intake process,” he said.
Schwindt would rather extend a hand, he said, than a ticket.
“I don’t write a lot of tickets, and I don’t feel like I need to,” he said. “The presence is a deterrent enough. It’s that rapport building that is so important.”
Reach Josh O’Leary at 887-5415 or firstname.lastname@example.org.