Staff Columnist

Iowa cities and counties are long overdue for 'defund police' debate

By the numbers: Iowa's local governments prioritize law enforcement over everything else in their budgets

Police spray a crowd with mace as protests broke out into violence in support of George Floyd on Friday, May 29, 2020 in
Police spray a crowd with mace as protests broke out into violence in support of George Floyd on Friday, May 29, 2020 in Des Moines. (Brian Powers/The Des Moines Register via AP )

Iowans waking up to the law enforcement crisis are finding many worthy targets for our rage. The president, governor and lawmakers deserve their share, but save plenty for your local city council members and county supervisors as well.

The state government makes the laws, but it’s mostly local officials who are tasked with enforcing them. A review of Iowa local government budgets reveals where our elected officials’ priorities lie.

• In all of Iowa’s 10 largest cities, police departments make up the single biggest general fund expenditure, and it’s usually not even close.

• The portion of the general fund dedicated to police ranges from about 17 percent in West Des Moines to a whopping 39 percent in Des Moines. For Eastern Iowa cities, Cedar Rapids is the state’s second-highest at 28 percent, while Iowa City is around the middle at 24 percent. Those figures don’t include pension payments or dollars budgeted from special funds, which are additional millions in larger municipalities.

• Among the state’s five largest counties, the portion of general funds budgeted for sheriff’s offices this year range from 22 percent in Johnson County to 39 percent in Black Hawk County.

• State law enforcement spending is meager compared to cities and counties. Gov. Kim Reynolds’ budgeted appropriation for the Iowa Department of Public Safety is $118 million this year, or about the same as the five largest county’s sheriff’s budgets combined.

The “defund police” movement now sweeping the nation will be vetted in city halls, not state capitols. The movement seeks to completely defund or radically reorganize police departments.

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In the coming weeks and months, you will hear a lot of local officials hemming and hawing about proper authorities and processes. They will say they don’t have the power to legalize this or change that. They are shielding their political interests with a legal structure that works for them but not for common people, and least of all for people of color.

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One thing city councils and county boards of supervisors definitely do control is the purse strings. Dedicating huge portions of their budgets to law enforcement — thereby ensuring a culture of over-policing — is a choice they have made, and they can stop if they so choose.

Many people have pointed out that most local police activity is important, or at least not destructive, routine stuff like medical assists and traffic control. The videos we see of misconduct are not representative of their jobs. That’s true, but then the question is, do the public servants doing those jobs need to be housed in the same department as semi-automatic rifles and chemical munitions?

There is no perfect model for public safety and peaceful de-escalation, but what we have now is not only a failure, it’s an exorbitantly expensive one. If there ever was a time for experiments in local democracy, to test the bounds of a community’s ability to police itself under its own values, it is now.

Our law enforcement systems have many glaring deficiencies, and government officials at nearly every level of government have some culpability. We need state and federal action to overhaul our laws and procedures. But our cities and counties don’t have to wait. adam.sullivan@thegazette.com; (319) 339-3156

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