116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
At the beginning of this year, it seemed like “defund police” would be more of a thing that it ended up being.
When Iowans this week cast ballots in local races, defunding police was on the ballot in only one place — and it won. Indira Sheumaker, who listed making police obsolete at the top of her policy agenda, won a seat on the Des Moines City Council.
It is a remarkable electoral feat in Iowa’s largest city. Sheumaker, a 27-year-old Black woman and activist with the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement, prevailed in a three-way race against a two-term incumbent and another opponent who was endorsed by the state's largest newspaper.
While defunding police is seen as unpopular among likely voters, Sheumaker's campaign banked on turning out new voters.
"There is a group of people in this country who have been politically engaged and politically catered to. In that very limited view, (defund police) is an unpopular message. … I want to be a representative for a bunch of people who had literally never had their door knocked by a political candidate," Sheumaker told me after the election.
Nevertheless, Sheumaker will be only one vote on a seven-member board that is looking to expand its police department. Elsewhere in Iowa, too, the consensus even among reform-minded city council candidates and elected officials is strongly in favor of increasing police funding.
“When it comes to working with council members, they have to work with me now.”
And that’s a shame. Law enforcement agencies in our state have grown too powerful and too expensive. They are ripe for downsizing.
Several Iowa cities were jolted last year by raucous protests for police accountability and racial justice following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. During her Condition of the State address at the beginning of the legislative session earlier this year, Gov. Kim Reynolds swore Iowa would not emulate the jurisdictions seeking to cut police spending.
“That’s not going to happen in Iowa; not on my watch. We should never be afraid to talk about ways to improve policing, but there will be no talk of defunding the police here. Our men and women in blue will always have my respect, and I will always have their back,” Reynolds said, according to her prepared remarks.
The governor followed up on those remarks by signing a legislative package in June to give police even more special legal protection than they already had, including a measure to withhold funding from municipalities that reduce law enforcement funding. Under the law, cities can’t shrink their police budgets at all without seeking permission from the state, a flagrant violation of the principle of limited government.
The “defund police” movement suffered from the outset from a poorly defined objective. It was taken by many critics to mean cutting police budgets to zero right away. More often, defunding police means somewhat reducing police budgets and diverting those resources to other priorities, especially those that would address the root causes of crime. The ultimate vision might be a society where police aren’t necessary, but eliminating police is not the immediately actionable goal.
“I want to work toward a society that doesn’t even need that in the first place. I want to be investing in those resources so we can scale back police as much as we need to,” Sheumaker said during an interview what the Des Moines Register editorial board.
Until now, the closest defunding police has come to being an actual public policy discussion anywhere in Iowa was at an Iowa City Council session in May. It lasted about 15 minutes and the idea was roundly rejected.
Teeing up the conversation, Iowa City Council member Laura Bergus wrote a Gazette guest column calling on the city to at least “talk about abolishing the police.” She envisioned unarmed public servants instead of armed police handling crisis situations.
“Even without knowing exactly what should replace policing as we know it, we must try something different,” Bergus wrote.
At their next work session, council members took turns voicing their strong disagreement with Bergus’s stance. Only one other council member, outgoing member Mazahir Salih, said she was interested in even reducing police funding, though she, too, opposed the idea of abolition.
Leaders in Iowa City, Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and elsewhere say they are interested in reforming police. A popular point is that there should be less reliance on armed responses to issues involving mental illness and homelessness. To do that, the trend in Iowa is to add more resources on top of what local governments spend for law enforcement.
Police budgets in Iowa are already lavish, usually the biggest budget priority in local budgets. There is no assurance that pouring in more money will lead to good outcomes.
“The budget is reaching almost $80 million at this point and we never question that. We never say, ‘Why are we spending all this money, especially when we don’t want them solving these problems that we’re sending them out to solve?’,” Sheumaker said during a forum hosted by KCCI-TV.
Defunding police is a boogeyman in Iowa politics, and it’s not even a very scary one at that. Come January, at least one radical police reformer will have a seat at the table of government power in Iowa.
"I've been a critic of the council, absolutely, but they've been adversarial to me, too. … When it comes to working with council members, they have to work with me now," Sheumaker said.
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