Policing, public safety and community priorities
State and local budget reforms for the common good of all Iowans
By Colin Gordon and Peter Fisher

July 22, 2020
This report 9-page PDF
News release 2-page PDF

The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and weeks of large-scale protests that followed around the country are generating renewed and urgent interest in a sweeping reassessment of our policing policies. The demands, recommendations and proposals mark a potentially dramatic shift in public policy, and we should embrace both the values and goals they represent, and the democratic processes — including local organizing and protest — that have pressed them to the fore of the public agenda. As Iowa communities grapple with these issues, it is important to understand the basic elements of these proposals, the arguments and evidence behind them, and the policy and budgetary implications.

The policy components behind the current push for reform are not impulsive, but draw on decades of research and experience. The push for change revolves around two arguments. The first is simply that our system of policing is fundamentally broken; that our approach to public safety needs to be dismantled and rebuilt from the ground up. The starkest evidence on this point is the pervasive and systemic racial inequity woven throughout our criminal justice system. The second argument is that a share of the resources we devote to policing could and should be spent more strategically and effectively. In this sense, the question is one of budgetary priorities, of focusing on where we can provide robust funding of public goods and services — education, social assistance, housing — to reduce the pervasive and systemic racial inequity found across virtually all metrics of opportunity or outcome.

In this brief, we first touch on the broad policy options and implications that accompany any effort to re-imagine public safety. We do not attempt here to recommend how exactly these efforts should evolve; that is outside both our expertise and our experience. Our goal is simply to provide some background on the issues that must be dealt with. We then turn our attention to the question of budgetary priorities — to the prospect of both diverting current spending on police to other needs, and of turning around the disinvestment in social supports and services that pushes policing to the fore as a last-ditch response to pressing social problems. The jurisdictional organization of policing and police spending are both parts of the puzzle.

Policing in Iowa is largely the responsibility of municipal and county governments. But the ability of local jurisdictions to make policy, and to reconfigure spending priorities, is closely regulated and constrained by the state. Meaningful and lasting change requires that we understand the constraints and opportunities currently facing local governments, and the actions needed by state government, to make public-safety reform and the necessary budgetary shifts a reality.

Rethinking Public Safety

Those pressing to restructure the police argue that by expanding city police budgets at the expense of other priorities, we have effectively criminalized and militarized our approach to public safety. When all you have is a hammer, as the saying goes, everything looks like a nail. This is a familiar argument with regard to police officer assignments in public schools, which can criminalize student behavior and feed the school to prison pipeline. Responses to genuine threats to public safety account for a very small percentage of police time and resources, and it is worth asking whether armed police are the best “first responders” to episodes like domestic disputes or drug overdoses. Some cities have already begun steering more crises to mental health or medical professionals.

In addition to questioning the range of police responsibilities, we should also interrogate what the police do, and how they do it. The history of policing in our cities offers powerful evidence that “public safety” has been overwhelmingly concerned with, and shaped by, the task of maintaining racial segregation and otherwise protecting white wealth.[1] The run of Department of Justice investigations into race and policing in a number of settings converge on the same conclusion: that our pursuit of “public safety” is marked by a systemic racism that shapes both police priorities and police-citizen interactions. What follows from this — especially for Black, Latinx, indigenous and other communities of color — is the tendency to adopt an adversarial posture, criminalize petty violations, and escalate confrontations (it is important to remember that Michael Brown was stopped for jaywalking, Eric Garner for selling loose cigarettes, and George Floyd because a shopkeeper suspected him of passing a counterfeit bill). “The police are our government,” as the sociologist W.E.B. DuBois lamented more than a century ago, underscoring both the fact that the police viewed the African-American community as deserving of surveillance but not protection, and the prominence of the police — to the exclusion of other public goods and services — as the face of the government in that community.

The policy implications here are wide-ranging. At the very least, they demand a serious reconsideration of what it means to “protect and serve.” One approach here is “community policing,” the central thread of the Obama Administration’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing (2015) and the first priority of the City of Iowa City’s 17-point response to the demands of the Iowa Freedom Riders. The goal of community policing is a police presence that is less adversarial and more embedded in local communities — and hence able (as the Ohio Task Force on Community-Police Relations underscores), to “seek reconciliation, develop relationships, further understanding and build trust.”

Policing should not simply punish those who break the rules, but also build trust in the rules themselves by ensuring that they are pursued fairly, and by involving all communities in that pursuit. Such approaches can be bolstered by clearer standards of practice and accountability. Most states set only minimal training requirements, and neglect the “soft” skills — such as de-escalation or mental health training — so important to modern policing. A few states have begun to more closely regulate police tactics, including military-style raids, chokeholds and the use of tear gas. Reform requires attention to legal assumptions such as “qualified immunity” that give officers the benefit of the doubt in almost any confrontation. Reform also can include state standards for transparency (such as used in Wisconsin and Illinois). Investigations involving use of force is important. The role of police unions in disciplining officers as well as the role of democratic governance — including citizen review boards with teeth — are part of transparency. Important, too, are open records on officer discipline and department budgeting.

Many activists worry that reforms will simply paper over the larger problems. Community policing is often approached as an additional responsibility (and claim on local budgets) — an extension of police presence and surveillance rather than a redirection. And closer regulation of the police tends to perpetuate the “bad apples” view of police misconduct, rather than address the underlying issues. For these reasons, it is important to consider not just what the police do and how they do it, but the very meaning of “public safety,” its relationship to other public commitments and obligations, and involvement and transparency for the public in setting policy.

Policing in Iowa is largely the responsibility of city governments in urban areas and counties in rural areas. But the state can clearly play in important role in how police and sheriffs operate, as evidenced by the bill passed in June that restricts use of chokeholds, prevents the hiring of an officer fired by another jurisdiction for misconduct or convicted of a felony, mandates de-escalation training, and allows the Attorney General to investigate police-involved homicides.

Much more could be done through state legislation to change police practices throughout the state. Meanwhile, several cities in Iowa have begun the process of changing practices and undertaking more fundamental restructuring of police, and a joint task force examining these issues on a statewide level has been convened by the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP and officials from local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. Those efforts are likely to be the testing ground for more serious and sweeping changes in policing in Iowa.

Follow the Money

Public budgets are moral documents; they represent (and quantify) our values and our priorities. This is why the movement to restructure police focuses not just on the scope and nature of policing, but also on narrowing police responsibilities and the redistribution of police budgets to other pressing social needs.[2] In an era of spare public budgets — and declining commitments to social assistance and public education — police funding has often come at the expense of other important public goods and services. Indeed, early political responses in Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Los Angeles have paired police budget cuts with increased local spending on housing and social assistance.

In Iowa (as elsewhere) the argument that resources and responsibilities should be shifted from policing to social services and other areas of state and local budgets requires an understanding of how those services are currently provided and what must happen if our budgetary priorities are to change. Adequate funding of a broad range of social supports has been the focus of much of our work, and of the work of many other organizations and advocates across the state, for years, or even decades. What is new in the current debates is the possibility of finding some of that funding from diversion of funds from policing.

Table 1Police and corrections make up only about 5 percent of all state and local government spending in Iowa, and this fraction has remained largely unchanged over the past three decades. However, they make up a much larger share of the direct spending by municipalities and counties. And it is in our larger urban settings in Iowa that the problems with policing — including a well-documented pattern of disproportionate minority contact — are most acute. For these reasons, we devote our attention below to Iowa’s 24 largest cities, and the counties in which they are located.

Police spending per capita has grown over the past 30 years in the seven largest cities, increasing from $201 in the 1990s to $260 (in 2017 dollars) in the most recent period, and consuming a larger share of city budgets — 18.3 percent in the 1990s, 21.6 percent more recently. In that same set of cities, average social spending — cash assistance, social services, health programs, housing and community development — has declined, both on a per capita basis and as a share of the budget — from 12.2 percent to 10.6 percent, about half the amount spent on police (Des Moines the exception).

The three university cities — Iowa City, Ames and Cedar Falls — spend the least on police among the cities of 20,000 or more. This has not translated into greater funding of social programs, which have shrunk as a share of the budget. The lesser amounts devoted to police in these three cities may be due in part to the existence of a separate university public safety department.

Both the large metropolitan suburbs and the smaller non-metro cities are in the middle on police budgets, both in per capita and percentage terms; in some the share of budgets going to the police has fallen, in some it has increased. The budgets for social services in many small cities have shrunk.

police Table 2

Social spending includes cash assistance, health programs, housing and community development. Total spending is for direct general spending for current operations, excluding utility-type services (water, sewer, refuse collection, electric, gas, phone) that are largely self-supporting; capital outlay and interest are excluded. Hospital spending is excluded because Cedar Falls is the only city with a hospital budget. Spending is converted to 2017 dollars using the Bureau of Economic Analysis implicit price deflator for state and local government services https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/A829RD3A086NBEA Averages by category are simple (not population weighted) averages except for percent non-Hispanic white.

Source: U.S. Census of Governments via the Government Finance Database, Willamette University https://willamette.edu/mba/research-impact/public-datasets/index.html

Police spending is not directly related to population diversity, regardless of city size. The four metropolitan cities with the lowest percent of the population that is white non-Hispanic — Des Moines, Waterloo, Sioux City and Davenport — do not spend more than the other three — Cedar Rapids, Council Bluffs and Dubuque. In fact, Sioux City is the second lowest, Cedar Rapids the second highest. Nor is there any clear relation between racial and ethnic diversity on the one hand and the share or amount of spending on police among the smaller cities. What does seem clear is that larger cities spend more per capita, with the exception of the three university cities. Levels of spending, of course, tell us nothing about how police practices might vary according to local demographics.

police Table 2

If we look at police spending in the largest populated counties (table below; data for smaller counties was incomplete) we see a slight trend toward increased spending per capita over time, and a clear increase in the share of the county budgets going to the county sheriffs.

police Table 2 Those wishing to investigate police spending in their city can do so readily with data available online. A copy of every city’s standard state budget reporting form for the past six years (fiscal years 2015 through 2020) is available on the Iowa Department of Management website. The form for the current year (fiscal year 2021) should be available from the city now, and on the state website soon. The very first item on the “Expenditures Schedule,” page 4, is “Police Department / Crime Prevention.” There you will find the total budget for the current year, an estimate of spending for the prior year, and actual spending for the year before that. To see how the police budget has changed as a percentage of the total budget, divide the amount in row 1 by “Total Government Activities Expenditures,” line 58. More detailed information on what the police budget goes for will be found in the city’s larger budget document, which should be obtainable from the city manager.

County budgets are also available online. On the Department of Management website, select your county, choose “county” in the second drop box, and click “Search.” Choose the budget for the year you want. When the budget appears, choose “SA1” on the left hand menu and wait. That will bring up the budget page with Law Enforcement spending itemized by uniformed patrol services, corrections, and other categories. Columns K, L and M will give you total spending for three years.

Alternatively, if you are comfortable with large datasets, you can use the U.S. Census of Governments data on individual cities and counties, as we did for this report, but will be limited to spending data only up through 2017.

Shifting resources

Shifting resources and responsibilities from policing to other public needs and priorities requires close attention to where and how such services are provided, and to where and how they are paid for. Police protection is largely a city responsibility, with counties playing a substantial secondary role, or the primary role in rural areas. Corrections (jails and prisons) is largely a state responsibility, with counties also playing a substantial role. Meanwhile, the kinds of services for which we seek increased funding are largely the responsibility of state and county government. Safety net programs — food assistance, Medicaid, hawk-I, child care assistance, TANF — are almost entirely state programs, with all or a majority of the funding coming from the federal government, depending on the program. Mental health and other health programs are largely the responsibility of the county public health departments. Education is the exclusive responsibility of the state (Regents’ institutions) and school districts (preK-12 schools and community colleges, using both state and local funds). Housing and community development programs are the exception, with responsibility spread across the state, counties and municipalities.

So what can cities do on their own? First of all, cities do provide support for nonprofit agencies providing a variety of social services, and they administer housing assistance programs, including funding for homeless shelters. A case can be made for increased local funding in all of these areas, and that funding could be shifted from police budgets. Second, local jurisdictions can contract with each other through “28E agreements” to accomplish these goals. A city, for example, could contract with the county in which it is located for specified mental health services, if that was determined to be the most effective way of dealing with substance abuse and mental health calls that are now handled by police.

To accomplish more fundamental change in the way education, social services, and family supports are funded will require action at the state level. This is because state law as it currently exists limits the ability of any one level of local government to accomplish a significant redistribution of resources. Cities account for the lion’s share of expenditures on policing, but spend little on social services other than housing. Social supports and education, in turn, are largely the responsibility of jurisdictions — states, school districts — that spend little or nothing on policing.

Second, local jurisdictions in Iowa operate under substantial constraints imposed by state law:

• Schools are financed by a combination of property taxes and state aid, with the aid formula designed to offset disparities in local property tax bases. But each district’s spending is determined largely by a per pupil spending formula, with the allowable level of spending set each year by the state Legislature.
• Cities and towns rely heavily on property taxes, plus local option (sales and hotel/motel) taxes in the majority of places. In all cases, rate limits are set by state law, and the majority of cities (particularly the larger ones) are at the rate limit. Cities also rely on fees for services, but such fees are not general revenue — they are earmarked for particular functions (e.g., building permit fees are dedicated to the costs of administering the building code).
• County governments also operate under property tax rate limits. Both the overall county general fund levy and the levy for mental health have a ceiling.
• In addition, the state recently imposed a limit on the increase in property taxes from one year to the next for both cities and counties. This limit can be exceeded only by a supermajority vote of the city council or board of supervisors.

While cities and counties have the power to fundamentally restructure policing, they have only limited power to shift significant resources to social services that could assume some of the responsibilities now undertaken by police. The “home rule” provisions of Iowa Code provide some autonomy to qualifying local governments, but prohibit them from levying any tax “unless specifically authorized by a state law.” Increased funding of mental health, for example, would require state legislation to either raise the cap on the county mental health levy or to dedicate more state funding to counties for mental health. Counties could expand their budgets for other health and social service (and many would argue that there is a pressing need to do so) but to the extent that counties are already at their general fund levy limit, that increased funding would have to come from other county services — again, unless state legislation raises that limit or provides direct funding.

More importantly, locally elected school boards cannot substantially increase funding of education, and neither cities nor counties have the power to substantially increase funding of the broad array of social supports that have been chronically shortchanged for decades. Adequate funding could be used to address and potentially reverse some of the pervasive racial and economic inequalities in American communities.

Much can be done at the local level to change the ways cities in Iowa provide public safety. Action at the state level is needed as well to bring about the kinds of major shifts in spending that are needed, both to redirect and increase state funding and to provide local governments with the flexibility to respond effectively and imaginatively to the opportunities presented by this moment in our country’s history.

[1] On this point, see Simon Balto, Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power (Chapel Hill, 2019); Colin Gordon, Citizen Brown: Race, Inequality and Democracy in the St. Louis Suburbs (Chicago, 1919); Kelly Lytle Hernandez, City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles (Chapel Hill, 2017).
[2] A recent study of three cities by The New York Times found that of the time spent by the typical officer, only 4 percent was on violent crime, 20 to 30 percent on other crime, about a third responding to noncriminal calls, about one-sixth on traffic control, 6 to 9 percent on medical or other calls, and 7 to 18 percent on proactive measures. Jeff Asher and Ben Horwitz, “How Do the Police Actually Spend Their Time?” https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/19/upshot/unrest-police-time-violent-crime.html

Colin Gordon is Senior Research Consultant and Peter Fisher is Research Director at the Iowa Policy Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research and analysis organization in Iowa City. Founded in 2001, IPP is funded primarily by foundation grants and donations from individuals and organizations. Find IPP reports on the organization’s website, www.iowapolicyproject.org, and other IPP commentary on the Iowa Policy Points blog, www.iowapolicypoints.org.