Iowa City Police Department unveils 988 crisis line decal on new squad cars

The Iowa City Police Department revealed its new squad car designs, featuring the addition of a 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline decal beside the traditional 911 number. Iowa City Police Chief Dustin Liston said the addition represents the community’s commitment to mental health.


Alex Snyder

Iowa City Police car 988 design in Iowa City on Wednesday, Nov, 16. 2022.

Colin Votzmeyer, News Reporter

The Iowa City Police Department added a 988 decal to the latest design for its squad cars.

988, the suicide and crisis lifeline, was launched on July 16 for those experiencing a crisis to text or call and speak with a trained counselor amidst increasing rates of suicide nationwide. The new decal number appears next to the 911 emergency number, amid various other changes to the car’s appearance, to bring awareness of the resource to Iowa City.

Dustin Liston, Iowa City Police Department police chief, said the addition of the 988 decal represents the community’s commitment to mental health and agreed suicide prevention is an issue that needs to be addressed in Iowa City.

“We have a large university and population,” Liston said, “And I think what we’ve learned, especially over the last few years coming out of COVID, is that it’s probably needed now more than ever.”

According to America’s Health Rankings, Iowa ranked 28 in least number of deaths because of intentional self-harm per 100,000 people in the U.S. in 2021 with 17, compared to 14.8 in Minnesota, 14.4 in Wisconsin, and 11.3 in Illinois.

Iowa Public Health Tracking Portal found that there were 1,091 suicide deaths in Iowa from 2020 to 2021, and 36 deaths of those deaths occurred in Johnson County.

“Mental health and suicide is an issue everywhere, certainly in a college town, so the more people that are aware of this resource, hopefully the more people that may utilize it.” Liston said. “It could save lives.”

Liston said the main reason for the appearance changes to the cars was to add the 988 decal to spread familiarity of the number to the public.

“Everyone, for the last many years, has memorized the 911 number,” Liston said. “We want the 988 number to become just as familiar, so if a person is having some sort of mental crisis that doesn’t necessarily need to involve law enforcement, we want them to remember that number.”

Whereas dialing 911 elicits a police response, a 988 call is received by a crisis counselor professional not associated with the police.

Sarah Nelson, chief executive officer of CommUnity Crisis Services and Food Bank said contacting 988 will go to lifeline centers either CommUnity has in Iowa City or Foundation 2 in Cedar Rapids, both unaffiliated with the police. She emphasized there is no tie between 988 and law enforcement.

“ICPD putting 988 on their police cars is them trying to get the message out to the community that police isn’t always the best response for a crisis,” Nelson said. “If you’re experiencing a mental health crisis, you might want to call 988 and get a mental health crisis counselor instead of law enforcement, versus if you’re experiencing a medical emergency or something life-threatening, you call 911.”

Liston said one of the Iowa City Police Department’s goals is to redirect those calls away from the police when there is no public safety concern.

“I think that’s another benefit of this number because a lot of times people felt they had no other number to call than 911 when they were going through some sort of mental crisis,” Liston said. “Now, this has the opportunity to, at the intake of the call, divert it from 911 if there doesn’t need to be a law enforcement response.

Nelson said the addition of the decal is an encouraging step in the direction of the police’s desire to reroute crises away from law enforcement.

“That’s something that we’ve been working on for quite some time as we don’t want to criminalize mental health,” Nelson said. “We want to divert mental health crises away from the criminal justice system, so when we get people the right resources to address the issue, the outcomes are much better.”

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Kelly Clougher, associate director of outreach services and embedded programs at University Counseling Service, noted the addition of the 988 decal signifies the importance of viewing suicide prevention as more than just a responsibility for mental health professionals.

“I think that this is a good example of how, as folks are learning about mental health intervention and suicide prevention, departments and agencies are pitching in to support campus mental health and preventing it from being a siloed responsibility for mental health offices like UCS,” Clougher said.

She said visibility is important in terms of mental health initiatives, so the 988 decal makes the resource visible to students at the UI.

“It also clearly indicates the connection that public safety has with mental health support,” Clougher said. “This 988 decal on our ICPD patrol cars is another example of how we see this really important work that our public safety is putting into supporting mental health and suicide prevention efforts.”