In June, the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement (formerly Black Lives Matter) called for police officer Brian Foster to be arrested, charged with abuse of power, and fired for his involvement in the heavy-handed and likely unlawful arrests of BLM protesters inside an apartment complex early that month.
Instead, on Monday afternoon, the City Council formally acknowledged Foster’s promotion by the DMPD to the position of senior police officer. The council did so without comment as part of its consent agenda, a list of typically routine items approved in a single vote at the beginning of meetings. Mayor Frank Cownie, City Manager Scott Sanders, and council member Joe Gatto, went out of their way to say they were simply receiving the promotion from the state civil services commission that signed off on it and believed they had no real authority to approve or deny the promotion themselves.
Foster was criticised by Des Moines BLM activists in June after he and fellow officer Thomas Garcia pursued a group of protesters into the complex where one of them lived without a warrant and arrested several of them on charges of interference with official acts, ostensibly stemming from their violation of a Polk County curfew in effect at the time. A livestream video taken at the scene by John “Rage” Leonetti showed protesters cursing at the officers before they entered the building and forcibly arrested the group in a chaotic scene.
In a subsequent investigation by the Informer, legal experts we spoke with said that Foster and Garcia likely overstepped their legal authority when they entered the premises to arrest the group. In their appraisal of the situation, Gina Messamer, a lawyer specializing in civil and criminal law (who later consulted with the Informer on an unrelated matter), and Sally Frank, a professor at Drake University’s law school, cited case precedent to illustrate how the officers’ actions could be considered an “abuse of power.”
At a march through the south side neighborhood of Des Moines shortly after the incident, the BLM included in its list of demands a call for “officers Thomas Garcia and Brian Foster be arrested and charged with abuse of power and terminated for arresting protesters in their own home.” Upon learning of Foster’s pending promotion, BLM activists organized a call to action and asked supporters to call Cownie and council members to request that Foster’s promotion be removed from the consent agenda.
“This promotion clearly demonstrates that the Council and DMPD reward violent behavior and do not care to prioritize the safety of DSM residents,” Des Moines BLM said in a statement. “It is evident that the Council has not been listening to engaged community members and grassroots organizers.
“DSM City Council continues to demonstrate they have no real intentions of addressing the corrupt and violent police department run by DMPD Chief Dana Wingert. This is unacceptable. We again demand that Brian Foster be fired. We demand that Chief Dana Wingert be fired. We demand that the city begins to defund the Des Moines Police Department.”
As for the council’s contention that they had no ability to approve or deny Foster’s promotion, a BLM representative said that “if the council would have acted when we first demanded that Brian Foster be fired, then he would not be receiving this promotion today.”
In defending the officers’ actions in the original incident, Parizek argued that because the protesters had been spotted violating the curfew before entering their residence, the arrest was lawful. “When a public offense is committed in one location and officers locate in a different location the persons that they have a reasonable belief were the ones who committed the offense, further investigation is lawful,” he said.
“We disagree with [the] characterization of the arrest you refer [to] as a ‘warrantless entry into a residency,’” Parizek said when asked to comment on Foster’s promotion. “Officer Foster, and the other officers accompanying him, witnessed a public offense and were attempting to effect arrests of the persons they observed commit the violation as they fled into the common area of an apartment building. The officers entered that common area of the apartment building to do that.”
Parizek described Foster’s promotion as a “non-competitive promotion based on educational and service requirements,” which he claimed Foster met. He also said that Foster was “described by peers, supervisors, and members of the community as an exceptional officer.”
A general description of senior officer, the position to which Foster has been promoted, says he will be “under direction to patrol an assigned beat in the enforcement of law and order” and will “carry out special assignments in the protection of life and property.” The yearly salary ranges from about $74,000 to $88,800.
Prior to his legally questionable arrest of the protesters in June, Foster was best known in central Iowa as a student resource officer in Newton, where he advocated surveillance of students’ social media use, before leaving the position in 2016. In 2014, the Iowa Court of Appeals approved Foster’s use of “remote pacing,” referring to an incident in which Foster pulled someone over for speeding based on observations he claimed to have made despite lacking a clear line of sight to the vehicle he was pulling over, which then led to an arrest for marijuana possession. The removal of SROs from schools and the decriminalization of marijuana are both issues that have been pushed into public discussion by local BLM activists.
As for Leonetti and the other protesters arrested by Foster and Garcia in June, the charges are still pending. According to Leonetti, the state offered him a plea deal on a charge of harrassment of a police officer, which he could get dropped after taking a class. Leonetti said he turned this offer down and also claimed the state said it would drop his current charge if he stayed out of trouble until December 4, but later reneged. He said he plans to refuse any plea from the state and maintains that he is not guilty of any wrongdoing. The Polk County Attorney’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Foster’s uncontested promotion caps off a year in which the council of all Democrats has responded to an unprecedented public outcry against unbridled police authority including the clear targeting of BLM organizers by taking no meaningful action. When Cownie appeared with Iowa’s Republican Governor Kim Reynolds after protests rocked the city at the end of May and early June wearing a DMPD hat, subsequent events have shown that he was signaling his deep commitment to the status quo.
Reactions from sitting council members have been similar. Ward 3’s Josh Mandelbaum, widely considered the most liberal council member, said he would not consider defunding the DMPD when confronted by protesters. In Ward 4 Gatto — Mandelbaum’s public nemesis on the council and its most publicly conservative member — reacted to protesters marching on his south side restaurant by preemptively summoning a DMPD platoon decked out in full riot gear. Other council members have appeared willfully ignorant or indifferent to criticism.
Whatever small gestures the council made towards meeting BLM demands, including a study on marijuana decriminalization, have been hamstrung by the DMPD’s refusal to cooperate. Although none of them agree with activist demands to defund the police, council members have also refused to negotiate or attempt to compromise with the BLM, instead furthering a combative and contemptuous relationship with them. Elsewhere in places like Iowa City, local elected officials at the very least attempted to respond to activist demands. Des Moines power brokers remain unwilling to give an inch.