Jun 10, 2013

An Open Letter to the West Liberty Police Department

West Liberty Police Department
409 N. Calhoun St.
West Liberty, IA 52776

To Whom it May Concern:

On Sunday, June 9th I drove through your town of West Liberty on my way home from Muscatine. My 13-year old son and his friend were in the backseat playing music and talking about their little league baseball tournament, which had ended just over an hour earlier. They chose to drive through West Liberty instead of taking Interstate-80 because it is more scenic, and I was happy to oblige.

We were driving on Columbus St. when I saw a car coming towards me from a side street. It seemed to be driving quickly, so I glanced to make sure it stopped before entering the flow of traffic. I then proceeded on Columbus after realizing that the car was a West Liberty Police Department vehicle. The officer turned left onto Columbus and began following me. At first he was driving at a reasonable distance and I assumed he was on his way to some specific location. Then he sped up quickly and drove extremely close to my bumper.

I was not exceeding the speed limit. It was daytime, and there was no need for me to have on headlights. My taillights and turn signals all work correctly. There are no dents or signs of damage on the exterior of my vehicle. I was simply driving home with two 13-year old boys in the backseat. There is absolutely no reason I can think of for an officer to run my license plate through the system at all. Is it standard practice for your officers to randomly run the plates of vehicles that are not in any way breaking the law?

The officer obviously did run my plates--even though there was no reason to-- because a few seconds later his lights went on. I immediately pulled over and looked for my license, registration and insurance information. As I did, I saw that my registration had expired. We recently acquired our vehicle from my parents, and when he registered the vehicle my husband assumed that our plates would be renewed at the same time as the title transfer. He was wrong. For that reason only I am glad that the officer stopped me to let me know about the violation. I am an extremely law-abiding citizen--2 speeding tickets in 27 years of driving are my only offenses. It bothered me immensely to know that I’ve been breaking the law unknowingly. By the time you receive this letter, my tags will be renewed and my check will be on its way to the Muscatine County Courthouse to pay my fine. Whether it be voting in every possible election, serving as a juror when called, or obeying the laws of the roadways--I always do my best to be a good citizen.

It is because I always do my best to be a good citizen that I am angry. The officer who pulled me over had absolutely no good reason to do so. I was not breaking any law. The registration sticker on my license plate is covered by the plastic holder that came with the car from my parent’s car dealer. He had no way of knowing it was expired just by looking at the car. I was not speeding or driving erratically, and nothing on my vehicle was damaged or malfunctioning.  The only possible reason I can think of for an officer to stop me is because of the race of my passengers---my son is biracial and his friend is black. Two young black men in the back seat, wearing baseball caps and listening to music. Is that suspicious in West Liberty?

The officer’s hands were shaking when he took my license and registration. They were shaking again when he handed me the ticket. Does he have Parkinson’s? Was he overly caffeinated? Or was he afraid of a middle-aged teacher and two 13-year old little league baseball players?

I can’t help but wonder if the officer would’ve made the stop if the boys in the backseat had been white instead of black. Please ask yourselves that question--would your officers run the license plates of a vehicle that is driven by a middle-aged white woman with 2 white boys in the backseat, when that vehicle is in good shape and the driver is obeying all traffic laws? Because I can tell you that I have never, ever heard any other white mom of white kids talk about getting pulled over for no logical reason. And because of that, I am deeply offended and hurt. It was painful to have to drive the rest of the way home and give my 13-year old passengers tips for the future: to tell them that when they are old enough to drive, if they get pulled over they need to make sure they keep their hands on the steering wheel at all times to make sure the officer doesn’t get scared of them just because they are young black men. It was upsetting to have to talk to them about the fact that even though West Liberty is one of the most diverse cities in Iowa, it obviously still lacks the ability to see young men of color as human beings deserving of respect. It was hard to tell them that maybe we should stick to the Interstate next time and forget about driving through West Liberty.

If it is standard practice to randomly run the license plates of perfectly law-abiding citizens, please let me know so that I can try to adjust my negative feelings about your police department. You may also want to reconsider that practice, as it does not seem like a very effective use of officers’ time. 

If it is not standard practice, I encourage you to ask your officers to participate in some diversity training. The two young black men in the backseat of my car both come from very good, law-abiding families. Both are good students, going into 8th grade, who love sports. Both are excellent big brothers, great sons, and have been recognized for their leadership and citizenship. One of them has dreamed of either being a professional athlete or a police officer since he was 2 years old. Encounters like the one we had in your town are beginning to change his mind, though. There is no reason that one officer’s prejudice should do that.


Jennifer Marshall Duncan

Note: This letter is being sent to the West Liberty Police Department and to the Muscatine County Courthouse via USPS.


  1. Oh, that's terrible Jen! Good for you for standing up for yourself and your son and his friend.

  2. Thanks for the support, Martha! I will definitely let you know if I get a response. The more I think about it, the more I get upset.

  3. As a journalist, I had to chat with cops pretty regularly, and while certainly every city has its own policies, I don't think running random plates is standard. If it was profiling (which I think it probably was) then you were the unlucky recipient of a really bored cop or something really random. But I doubt it. Especially your description of how he sped up as you crossed the intersection. Ugh.

  4. I was also pulled over for no good reason as a teen (the reason is probably because I had tinted windows and a bumper sticker on upside down that said "SH*T HAPPENS" (I thought I was so funny) smdh lol. It's upsetting for sure to be pulled over when you know you didn't do anything wrong. We can just imagine how upsetting it would be to be physically stopped and frisked, multiple times while just walking down the street, like the situation in NY. This U.S. culture of profiling is out of control.

  5. Wow! What a well-written letter, which can be so difficult in an emotion-laden situation. Nicely done, Jen. PLEASE let us know how the police dept responds. I felt myself getting angry just reading this, so I can only imagine how you felt in that situation.

    My husband recently pointed out to me that my registration had expired in May - it was July - and wondered how on earth I hadn't been pulled over. In his experience, he was sure he would have been pulled over June 1. Me? Well, I'm a middle-age white lady in her SUV enjoying my white privilege, until my husband pointed it out to me. He has definitely had his share of being pulled over for trivial reasons. It makes me mad, especially when I think of my boys encountering any negative profiling in the future.

  6. I agree, Glenn. It is totally out of control!

  7. The police department response on the telephone, "I can assure you that race was not a factor in the traffic stop." The officer assured me that racial profiling does not occur in his town. The officer on the phone is not the one who pulled me over, though.

    Yet, our local paper just ran a story about the frequency of traffic stops, juvenile arrests, and jail sentences for African-Americans. Though only a small percentage of our residents are black, a disproportionate majority of all traffic stops, juvenile arrests and adult inmates are black. Even IF the officer who stopped me was not profiling, I have a hard time believing that there is absolutely no racial profiling in the entire W. Liberty police department. Someone in the department is responsible for the disproportionate numbers.

  8. Jen: I'm sorry you had a bad experience while driving through our town of West Liberty. We have some officers who while they say there is no racial profiling, we tend to wonder sometimes. It may have been at the end of the month when they have not had enough tickets given out that you were stopped, but also if your vehicle had a license plate on it and they could not see whether or not the registration sticker was for the current or the next year, that might have been the reason that your plate was run. I have always had a good rapport with our PD, although I do know some younger people who do not like them, but then I tell them if they are in trouble, call someone who has no authority to help you and see just how well you get out of the situation. The fact of the matter of racial profiling is not something that we have problems with because we have more Hispanics in West Liberty than there are Whites in the 3200 population. If you would like to see the exact make up of the races in the town you might want to see that and then decide whether you still think racial profiling was the reason you were stopped. I really doubt that you were stopped because they saw two children in your car that were not white. We don't care about that particularly. There are some people who do not like others, but they are few and far between. If you would come to our town for some reason other than the reason you did, you might find that we are a nice town and we don't care whether you or your children are black, white, green or pink with purple polka-dots. We have an amazing number of different nationalities in West Liberty and we all seem to get along well. It's the outside people who bring up the racial profiling question too often, not the residents. I have a job in Iowa City, and am not here all the time, but I talk to anyone and everyone whether I know them or not. I am not prejudiced against anyone, unless they do something that makes me wonder where and how they were brought up. Hope you come back and see us again. We aren't all like whoever the person with whom you had the encounter. Have a nice life otherwise.


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