3 takeaways from our Q&A with Ames' new police chief, Geoff Huff

Isabella Rosario
Ames Tribune

Nearly 27 years after he started working for the Ames Police Department, Geoff Huff had his first day as the city's new police chief July 1. Huff has been serving as interim chief since Chuck Cychosz retired in August 2020.

Huff sat down with the Ames Tribune last week for an interview about making police information accessible, officers' role in schools, use of force policies and his goal to hire a "highly trained, highly capable, diverse workforce." 

Here are three takeaways from that conversation.

The full Q&A, for subscribers: New Ames Police Chief Geoff Huff talks use of force, SROs and goals in candid interview

1. Community engagement, data transparency to be top priorities

Huff said former chief Cychosz was "really instrumental" in pushing the Ames Police Department toward a community policing model. During the hiring process to become chief, Huff said he and City Manager Steve Schainker heard feedback from different focus groups, who said the department needs to "do a better job of engaging the public, especially those that we don't engage with very often," like immigrants and people of color.

In response to "an extraordinary amount of feedback" after the murder of George Floyd last year, the city manager published a policing report last September. One of the report's recommendations was the formation of an Ames Citizen Police Advisory Committee, which Huff said will have a role in reviewing complaints against officers and brainstorming ways to make police data accessible.

Huff has explored making demographic data on arrests available at the library, but publishing updated physical copies of the department policy manual presents more of a challenge, he said, as it's "a living document." The policy framework is provided by Lexipol, a private company based in Texas. The Lexipol program cost Ames $17,693 to implement during fiscal year 2018-19, and an additional $16,189 in maintenance fees during the 2019-20 fiscal year.

Related: Ames residents ask police chief finalist Geoff Huff about data transparency, racial equity


Ames interim police chief and the candidate of Ames police chief Commander Geoff Huff presents a public presentation during a public forum a finalist of Ames' new police chief at the Ames Public Library Monday, June 7, 2021, in Ames, Iowa.

2. Police in schools 'do not work independently from the school administrators'

Huff expressed frustration with how some people have criticized Ames' school resource officer program, saying that "SROs do not work independently from the school administrators."

"In fact, in most cases if they write a juvenile referral, it's because they've been asked to by a school administrator," he said.

Ames police and district administrators need to further evaluate how the program is functioning, Huff said. In the past, "SROs have been asked to do some things they probably shouldn't be doing — bathroom checks, hallway checks, stuff like that — that just doesn't require a police officer," Huff said.

Huff's statement that school resource officers often work at the direction of school employees is reflected in the Ames Tribune's analysis of 45 incidents in which students were charged during the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years. In at least 28 incidents, officers were called in by a teacher, principal, guidance counselor or other staff member, who reported students for fighting, smelling of alcohol or being caught with drug paraphernalia.

Within those 45 incidents, a total of 56 Ames students were given citations, according to the Tribune's analysis of the reports. While Black students make up 10% of the current school district population, 24 students given citations over those two school years — or 43% — were Black. In contrast, white students make up 66% of the district population and 32 students given citations in that time — 57% — were white. 

More: As districts look at the role of police in schools, what do records show about SRO interactions with Ames students?

Ames interim police chief and the candidate of Ames police chief Commander Geoff Huff presents a public presentation during a public forum a finalist of Ames' new police chief at the Ames Public Library Monday, June 7, 2021, in Ames, Iowa.

3. Some residents want changes to use of force policies; Huff says rules 'can't be so strict' 

According to the city manager's September policing report, some Ames residents wanted the police department to ban chokeholds, teargas and shooting at moving vehicles, as well as require officers to use less-than-lethal force before resorting to deadly force. Ames police's rules for use of force are under Lexipol's policy framework, which has been criticized by some policing experts and civil rights advocates for making it too easy for officers to justify killing civilians.

Huff first clarified, "Lexipol doesn't provide us the policy. (Our policies) are our policies. ... What they do is they provide kind of a backbone and a structure for the policy manual.

"I think there's a misconception that they just hand you a policy manual and you start following it," he said.

Huff said the department's use of force policies allow officers to "respond with the force appropriate for what you're presented with."

"A policy manual can't be so strict that there's no room in there for interpretation," he said.

The department's policy manual says officers can only use chokeholds when a person cannot be captured in any other way and has used or threatened to use deadly force, or an officer "reasonably believes the person would use deadly force against any person." Tear gas is allowed for crowd control, crowd dispersal or against barricaded suspects. Shooting at moving vehicles is allowed either in deadly force situations or "when the officer reasonably believes there are no other reasonable means available to avert the imminent threat of the vehicle." 

USA Today investigation: This company's permissive policies are behind high-profile police shootings of Black men in the US

Isabella Rosario is a public safety reporter for the Ames Tribune. She can be reached by email at irosario@gannett.com or on Twitter at @irosarioc.