Experts explain effects of defunding the police, as Iowa City Police Department accounts for 11% of proposed budget

Updated: Jun. 10, 2020 at 7:59 PM CDT
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IOWA CITY, Iowa (KCRG) - Since the death of George Floyd, after a former police officer was seen on video kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, some protesters and even government officials have called for defunding police nationwide.

Defunding the police was one of the initial demands from the group leading protests in Iowa City, known as the Iowa Freedom Riders. Recently the group revised those demands, instead adding requests like the publication of the Iowa City Police Department’s budget and spending.

Dennis Bockenstedt, the finance director for the city, is a part of the team that will prepare that budget for the group. He knows the budget well and explained while the information is available, it is broken down into categories to simplify the presentation. When presented as raw data, it would amount to more than 1,000 lines of expenses.

“We put together a very detailed budget document,” Bockenstedt said.

For reference, at nearly 650 pages, the budget is longer than every Harry Potter book, with the exception of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

In the proposed budget for 2021, the city breaks down costs for the city’s general fund. That’s how the Iowa Freedom Riders posted this generated graph, showing police make up about a quarter of the city’s spending, the most of any other department.

“It is the largest department expenditure within the general fund," Bockenstedt said. "The general fund is primarily supported by property taxes, it’s also supported by a number of other revenues.”

The budget in Iowa City is not made up of only one fund, therefore does not reflect the full city budget.

The police account for 11% of spending in the entire city budget, less than public works (20%), transportation (17%), and finance (15%). In total, the proposed 2021 police budget about $16 million.

KCRG-TV9 spoke with Dr. Scott Wolfe and Dr. Kyle McLean, who have both received their doctorates in criminology and criminal justice.

Wolfe, an associate professor at Michigan State University, works with agencies nationwide on topics including the use of force and community relations. McLean, an assistant professor at Clemson University, has taught policing classes for years and has done studies on police training and published many papers on his findings.

With some protesters now calling to defund the police, both Wolfe and McLean warn there would be consequences.

“I don’t think most people have any idea what it means, including the people that are advocating for it,” Wolfe said. “In general, when you hear the term or use the term ‘defund,’ that would involve some type of cutting back or at least reallocation of resources within a police agency."

McLean said while there are different interpretations, including some implying disbanding or abolishing the police, he offered a similar definition that he said seems to be most common.

“Reduce police budgets in order to invest in other areas in the community, other social services, things like mental health services, education, things like that,” McLean said.

Defunding the police by 25% was one of the Iowa Freedom Riders’ original demands. The group has since modified those demands, but many followers are still calling for action.

Both professors explained cutting the budget is not as easy as it sounds.

“If we indiscriminately defund police, it will open that opportunity for more victimization in our communities, in the communities that are most impacted by this excessive use of force problem,” Wolfe said.

McLean explained, depending on specific unions, it could actually have a negative effect on what people are protesting for, due to what is known as a “last-in, first-out” policy among police officers.

“What that means, from a cultural standpoint as somebody who studies police culture, is that your younger, more progressive police officers, that probably want to change the culture of policing, and are more likely to support the ideals that police reformers want cops to support, are the ones that are going to be leaving," McLean said. "And the older, more entrenched officers that have been entrenched in this police culture for years and even decades, are the ones that are going to stay.”

Wolfe said that a first key step is another demand of protesters: know how the police budget is spent.

“Look at that budget, and have honest conversations with police agencies like [Iowa City’s], about how they are spending their money and how that could be reallocated,” Wolfe said.

But McLean said the solution may not be cutting budgets now. Instead, he said spending more in the short term could allow for defunding in the long term.

“You have to be careful to not create an additional problem we’re going to have to deal with somewhere down the road," McLean said. "And instead, to go ahead and invest in those alternatives to try to create something that’s more sustainable long term.”

And that could mean the work to reform is just getting started.

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