Guest op-ed from Hem Rizal, a Des Moines educator.
Yesterday morning, Des Moines police arrested Reverend Kristin Wolf Peters at her home, a faith leader who has been a vocal supporter of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Activist Matthew Bruce was also arrested as he was working to put together a donation drive for derecho relief efforts. They were both charged with one count of Interference with Official Acts, stemming from the protest that happened days ago. While these arrests and the charges were completely unwarranted and unjustified, they are only a small part of a much bigger problem with the Des Moines Police Department.
It is time we talked about the DMPD, its inefficiency, its incompetence, its budget, and how the City of Des Moines is deliberately prioritizing what’s NOT in the best interest of its residents. It’s time to defund the Des Moines Police.
Last year, the City of Des Moines allocated 39% of its General Fund budget to DMPD, i.e. the city allocated $70 million of the city’s $181 million in General Funds budget to the DMPD. This was more than the next three department budgets combined – Fire (23%), Finance (8%), and Park and Recreation (7%). Their budget increased by more than 10% from the fiscal year 2017-18 and enjoyed the largest increment by dollar amount among all departments financed by the General Fund budget during this time period.
With such an astronomical budget, the DMPD cleared only 17% of burglary cases; 42% of arsons; 27% of thefts; 32% of motor vehicle thefts; and 33% of robberies. Last year, there were only 100 rape cases reported to the Des Moines Police Department, the largest and most urban police department in the State of Iowa. Of those 100 cases, the DMPD cleared 82.
Our police department is incompetent and inefficient.
What it is extremely efficient at is raking in massive amounts of money from the public. In 2017-18, the DMPD and the City of Des Moines made $2,033,838 in fines and forfeitures. This more than doubled in 2018-19 to $4,716,200. The human cost of this is likely incalculable.
The problem isn’t funding – the DMPD has all the money it needs and more. The problem is that we as a city have failed, time and again, to prioritize what’s truly important. We’ve failed to recognize that our police department is inefficient and incompetent at performing many of the tasks we fund them to do. We’ve inflated their budget and have done little to hold them accountable. Investing in our police gives us a false sense of security and we don’t like talking about that blind spot. By pouring money into policing, we’re ignoring so many other needs, and the repercussions should wake us all up.
17.2% of Des Moines residents live in poverty, including 25% of children under the age of 18 and 10% of seniors age 65 or older. Among Des Moines residents below 65, 10.8% have disabilities, and 8.2% lack health insurance. Only 25.8% of residents aged 25+ have a bachelor’s degree or higher, when the national rate is 33.4%.
Last year, more than a thousand Des Moines Public Schools students faced homelessness at some point, which was enough to fill a high school. More than one-third of Iowa’s homeless individuals are from Polk County. 76.8% of DMPS students qualified for free or reduced lunch in the school year 2019-20.
According to the spring 2019 Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) math data, 45% of 2-10 graders at Des Moine Public Schools are “at-risk” for college readiness. That figure sits at 63% among African American, 72% among ELL, and 83% among Special Education students.
In the school year 2017-18, 612 DMPS 7-12 graders dropped out, including 129 Black and 198 Hispanic children. In the same school year there were 198 homeless 7-12 graders at DMPS, of which 47 dropped out (a drop out rate of 23%, lower than only ICCSD in the entire state).
Social and economic marginalization is a perpetual cycle. Born in poverty? You’re likely to attend poor schools, get a poor education, develop a small professional network, earn less, and if you ever make a poor choice you get swooped up by the criminal justice system and your fate is sealed.
Yes, a significant percentage of Des Moines Public School’s budget comes from property tax and State Foundation Aid. However, it is foolish to think that the city cannot do anything to help create an environment for its residents to succeed.
The best solution is to reverse that cycle of poverty and bridge the opportunity gap by investing in the people and the communities they live in, not in the police, jails, and prisons. We must invest in equitable education, healthcare, and affordable housings. But by dumping 39% of the city’s general funds budget into policing, the city is effectively diverting money away from these critical needs.
By slicing a little bit of the DMPD’s budget and reinvesting that in our communities, we can not only solve some of our social and economic issues, but also reduce the needs for police presence at every block of our city.
For example, if we take $20 million out of the DMPD’s budget and invest that into affordable housing, health care and child care, social and mental health services, we’d be reducing the work of the police who respond to issues related to mental distress, homelessness, and evictions. Police officers shouldn’t be the ones doing these jobs anyways. Trained social workers, counselors, and behavioral health experts would be much more effective.
Lastly, we live in a city where we require our police officers to hold a high school diploma or GED equivalence and pay them $68,182 in starting salary. By contrast, our teachers at Des Moines Public Schools earn $43,375 in starting salary and we require them to have at least a Bachelor’s degree. The essence of this comparison is not to pit one group of professionals against another. Rather, it’s to highlight the fact that many police officers aren’t adequately trained to perform the tasks they’re often assigned to do but we’re still willing to pay them 57% higher wage than our teachers who are responsible for shaping the futures of 32,000 of our city’s residents each year.
Where our money goes is a direct reflection of our value system, and the City of Des Moines is failing at this. If our City Council has the moral and political will to shake things up, defunding the police would be the perfect place to start.
by Hem Rizal
Iowa Starting Line is an independently-owned progressive news outlet devoted to providing unique, insightful coverage on Iowa news and politics. We need reader support to continue operating — please donate here. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more coverage.