Polk County Set to Rename Justice Center for John Sarcone

The decision would be a controversial one among critics who have long accused the outgoing tough-on-crime Dem of selective prosecution and racial bias

Outgoing Polk County Attorney John Sarcone speaks at the swearing-in ceremony of Des Moines Police Chief Dana Wingert in February 2015. Photo: Carl Wycoff/Flickr CC BY 2.0

The Polk County Board of Supervisors plans to rename the Justice Center in downtown Des Moines after longtime County Attorney John Sarcone, a controversial law-and-order Democrat who is stepping down after holding the office for 32 years.

The board will consider a resolution to rename the building — which houses the county attorney’s office and handles juvenile, traffic, simple misdemeanor, and small claims court cases — during its upcoming meeting next Tuesday. The plan was apparently announced at a retirement party held for Sarcone Thursday night.

While Sarcone has long enjoyed institutional support from the local Democratic powers that be, a decision to rename the building after him would surely anger critics who for years have accused him of selective prosecution and racial bias — recently during the local BLM protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis. Sarcone’s office aggressively prosecuted protesters as well as others including Cameron Lard, a Black former member of the Cyclones basketball team who was uninvolved in the demonstrations and just returning home, and Andrea Sahouri, a Palestinian-American reporter working for the Des Moines Register at the time whose arrest and eventual acquittal drew international condemnation.

Confronted with claims of racial bias in 2016, Sarcone flippantly told the Register: “Guess what? They are committing the crimes. The reality is, there’s a disparity in the number of crimes committed by people of color. What you have to do is address the conduct there.”

After Sahouri’s trial, the Informer went to the Register archives to show how, in 1993, Sarcone faced allegations of bias in his much different handling of a situation involving a protester associated with the notorious anti-abortion group Operation Rescue. The protester had been stalking and harassing a local doctor and, according to the doctor, struck him with a protest sign while picketing outside his clinic. In a controversial move, the doctor was arrested for punching the protester in response and charged with assault.

The doctor was later acquitted by a jury. Suspicions that Sarcone chose to prosecute the case because of his personal views on abortion — and his previous efforts to get the protester released from jail for trespassing at a Planned Parenthood clinic — only grew the following year when a Register reporter spotted Sarcone himself participating in an anti-abortion protest. The demonstration was held near the intersection of Merle Hay Road and Douglas Avenue, near where Sahouri would be arrested years later.

In 2007, Sarcone’s office represented the losing side of the landmark Varnum v. Brien case, in which the Iowa Supreme Court struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage after Polk County Recorder Timothy Brien was sued for denying marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples.

Sarcone’s office also prosecuted the case of Pieper Lewis, who was a 15-year-old sex-trafficking victim when she killed her rapist in 2020. That case, which gained Lewis sympathy from across the nation, resulted in a voluntary manslaughter plea deal that last month got her five years probation, a deferred judgment, and order to pay the rapist’s family $150,000 in compensation as mandated by state law.

We’ve heard the proposal before the county board Tuesday is to rename the building the John P. Sarcone Polk County Justice Center, although the board’s 35th agenda item just reads, “Resolution in recognition of John P. Sarcone and naming of 222-5th Avenue” — the Justice Center’s address.

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.