The landscape of local law enforcement leadership has changed.
The three largest local law enforcement agencies have all recently changed leadership. University of Iowa Public Safety Director Scott Beckner and Coralville Police Chief Shane Kron recently started in their new roles, and the Iowa City Council voted to hire new Police Chief Jody Matherly just a month ago.
Matherly was born in Grinnell, where his father was a manager at the local Sears and Gambles department stores. At age five, he moved to Flint, Mich., where his dad managed the Gambles store there.
He was inspired by his father’s police officer friends growing up and came to know his calling early. True to his Iowa bloodline, he was captain of his high school wrestling team (138 lbs.) and followed his high school wrestling coach to Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich. He became a leader there as president of his college fraternity despite being the first in his family to ever go to college.
He did summer Police Academy as part of his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. As a result, he was able to start as an officer right away in a Flint suburb. After three years, he moved to the Flint police department in a series of moves seeking sequential career challenges.
Over an 11-year stint in Flint, he rose to the rank of lieutenant. He then took on the challenge of heading up an entire department as he returned to Grinnell as police chief. He was in Grinnell for nine years before moving to head up a larger department in Altoona (population 17,000) for the next five years.
The next stop is Iowa City.
Trying to get a sense of him, I threw out some issues relevant to our town. When I asked how he interpreted the Black Lives Matter movement, he said he “understood the message” coming from the group over the past two years. He has told his officers to not be distracted by the noise but focus on understanding the substantive messages to be learned from across the country.
Matherly’s time in Flint put him in the middle of race relations in law enforcement. Flint’s population is 65 percent African American and the police department at the time was 40 percent African American. Matherly spent his 11 years there watching his African-American colleagues out in the community positively interacting with diverse populations — not just other people of color — in a way that was not necessarily taught at the academy. He also learned how to teach such techniques from his African-American supervising officers who guided him and others on such skills. When he moved on to Grinnell, with its internationally diverse community, these same lessons applied not just to African-Americans but were diverse populations that ran the gamut of sexual identity, country of origin, religious practice as well as race.
From a personal standpoint, Matherly found it natural to demonstrate how to work with others. He was a from a non-college family who himself went to college and sent his kids to college. He worked his way up in a decidedly blue-collar city. He was the police chief of the first city west of the Mississippi to have a college or university and where a sense of an academic community is paramount. He now is the chief of police in the home city of the University of Iowa. It makes sense that the City Manager of Grinnell referred to him as someone who can connect with anybody.
I asked what was the best answer that he gave Iowa City Manager Geoff Fruin during his interview process. Matherly said “that I don’t have all the answers…but I have the right questions and I will go into the community and find the answers. I’ll ask what is the community looking for, what are the police doing right and what are we doing wrong. I’ll ask what is the community’s vision of the police. I do this because we need their trust.”
When I noted that Iowa City is the only community in Iowa with a Citizens’ Police Review Board, he noted that he was not bothered by that and noted his experience with an ombudsperson in Flint who provided independent checks and balances to that police department. I then brought up the St.Ambrose University study on the Iowa City Police Department’s disproportionate arrest rate that is an ongoing evaluation. He has already met with Dr. Christopher Barnum, the principal investigator of the study.
Matherly talked in robust detail about “officer discretion” and how he expects his department to work smarter, and not just harder. For instance, it might be better not to make the early arrest of a petty infraction but instead be more circumspect, wait to react and gain the respect and trust of a neighborhood. Get the “intel” that is needed to eventually target and detain the criminal activity that will ultimately be more disruptive to that neighborhood and the larger community. It was clear to me that he was talking about a subtle skill that our police officers have and that he intends to support and grow.
It’s important to know that he has a life outside of his blue uniform. He met his wife, Laura, at Grand Valley State University. She was from Flint but agreed that a change would be good and decided to become an Iowan. She received her BSN in nursing at GVSU. They have three children, now grown. Two are UNI grads and working in Iowa themselves.
His hobbies are wrestling (of course) and football and he is a honest Hawkeye fan who is looking forward to reduced travel time to watch the team in action. Laura is still a Michigan State fan, as would be expected. When I asked how the two of them reconciled that Big Ten Football Championship two years ago he was appropriately vague. Good call Chief. Welcome to Iowa City.