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National NAACP concerned about low rate of probable cause in Iowa complaints

James Q. Lynch, CR Gazette –

Despite a new leader at the Iowa Civil Rights Commission and signs that more complaints are being taken seriously, leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People continue to have concerns the state agency finds no merit in far too many complaints.

According to an NAACP analysis, the rights commission has found probable cause in just 1.5 percent of about 2,000 non-housing complaints each year for the past 15 years.

The rights commission finding of probable cause in just 1.5 percent of its cases is “disturbingly low,” Rev. Keith Ratliff, a Des Moines pastor and president of the Iowa-Nebraska Conference of the NAACP, said at a Feb. 20 news conference at Drake University’s Legal Center.

The comparable rates in Nebraska, Minnesota and Illinois are 6.4 percent, 8.2 percent and 15. 7 percent, respectively, he said. No one should be fooled into believing Iowa’s 1.5 percent probable cause rate means discrimination has been eradicated, Ratliff said.

“There is no apparent reason why the Iowa probable cause rate is so dramatically different,” Ratcliff said. He is “deeply troubled by what, on it’s face, appears to be a seriously flawed enforcement process. It appears to us there are systemic or structural problems at the Iowa Civil rights commission, which has almost completely undermined its enforcement of the Iowa Civil Rights Act.”

Among the problems, Des Moines Branch NAACP President Arnold Woods said, is there is no definition of “probable cause” in the commission’s rules. Adopting a definition should be a priority and, the NAACP leaders said, would result in more complaints being heard by the commission. In the past 10 years, Woods said, there have been no public hearings for non-housing complaints.

Gov. Terry Branstad acknowledged his administration inherited a “mess” at the rights agency, but said his director, Beth Townsend, has started to turn things around.

“The point here is the person that I put in charge has recognized the mess, and the incompetence, and the inappropriate things that were going on in that commission and has corrected and changed that and I’m proud of her,” Branstad said at his Monday news conference. She’s an example “of the kinds of things that we can do to change the culture of government.”

“In a very short period of time, she’s dramatically turned it around,” Branstad said. “There were cases that were 10 years old that hadn’t been decided. There was a huge backlog. She’s dramatically reduced the case load.”

Woods and Ratliff said they appreciate Townsend’s willingness to meet with them and acknowledge their concerns. She’s told them the probably cause rate since the July 1 start of the fiscal year is about twice as high as in the past.

While that’s a “significant improvement,” said Russell Lovell, a law professor at Drake University, it’s still low.

“We were pleased with the meetings we’ve had with Director Townsend, that she takes this seriously and that she realizes there is a need for a close look and changes to be made,” said Lovell, a member of the NAACP legal redress committee.

Gazette Reporter Rod Boshart contributed to this report.

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