116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Iowa City leaders talked a big game last year when they started making plans to reform the police department.
My hometown was the site of some of the state’s biggest demonstrations during the renewed Black Lives Matter movement last summer, including one incident where police used chemical munitions against the crowd. Protesters demanded fundamental change — up to and potentially including abolishing the police department — and the city council seemed like it was ready to have that conversation.
“We made a commitment last June to restructure our police department and what I see here is a lot of what has already been underway and already in the works, and reinforcing things we’ve been doing,” council member Laura Bergus said. “ … I want to challenge us to consider — what did we think we were committing to last summer?”
Days before the meeting, Bergus published a guest column in The Gazette arguing the city should at least consider abolishing the police department as part of police reform talks. In place of armed police officers, Bergus proposed “unarmed, professional interveners” to respond to emergencies and promote public safety.
That idea was firmly rejected by a majority of the council this week.
“On this particular issue of even entertaining the idea of abolishing the police department, yeah, you and I are on opposite ends of the pole,” Susan Mims told Bergus.
Pauline Taylor offered a dictionary definition of “abolish” and called it extreme. Mazahir Salih said policing is needed. And Mayor Bruce Teague said, “The word abolish, to me, I think is very dangerous.” Council member John Thomas did not weigh in and Janice Weiner left the meeting shortly before the discussion on abolition.
People envision different things when they talk about abolition. We can look to the council’s own language to know what they were thinking at the onset of this process.
Last June’s resolution, which all seven members voted for, specifically mentioned Minneapolis, which at the time was discussing dismantling its police department, and Camden, NJ, which dissolved its department about a decade ago and replaced it with a new one. Iowa City’s plan does not resemble those cities’.
Reducing reliance on armed police in non-violent situations was a key point in the resolution. Far from that, though, council members spent time this week inventing new opportunities for armed police to interact with the public through community service projects.
Officials are discussing civilianizing some positions — relying on unarmed community service staff instead of armed officers — though they say their authority is limited. Under state law, only a sworn officer can issue citations. And the police chief warned that calls for service can turn dangerous, necessitating the presence of cops with guns.
But there were always going to be legal and logistical barriers to transforming our public safety systems. That’s what city leaders signed up for last year when they committed to restructuring the police department.
Violent and property crime rates in Iowa City are lower than state and national averages and have been steady or declining in recent years. Yet the police budget and the number of sworn officers has only increased. The department budget now represents almost a quarter of the city’s general fund, about three points higher than a decade ago.
Iowa City’s police reform plan shifts some resources but basically keeps the department intact in its current form. It’s not what the council resolved to do last year.
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Correction: This column has been updated to say council member Janice Weiner was not present for the discussion on abolishing the police department.