Iowa City, Johnson County elected officials lean toward confrontation without police

Iowa City City Council members and Johnson County Supervisor address the ‘defund the police’ movement and evaluate possible alternatives to law enforcement.


Contributed by Shawn Harmsen.

Arabia Parkey, News Reporter

With the election of Indira Sheumaker to Des Moines City Council, who ran on a ‘Defund the Police’ platform, and the rejection of an amendment suggesting the replacement of the Minneapolis Police Department with a new Department of Public Safety, nationwide there have been varying developments to the ‘defund the police’ movement.

In Johnson County, there are differing perspectives on police restructuring and defunding, but Johnson County elected officials are leaning toward confrontation without police to address police brutality.

At-Large Iowa City City Council Member Laura Bergus said she does not necessarily identify with the phrase ‘defund the police’ but would like for Iowa City to evaluate paths towards abolition.

“I think that’s a more helpful frame than defund,” Bergus said. “Because what it makes us do is imagine a world in which officers of the state carrying lethal force weren’t the primary responders to many of the problems in our society, and it makes us think about if that didn’t exist, what kinds of community safety tools could we build, could those be supported by the government?”

Bergus said one method the council is looking into is replacing some responsibilities of law enforcement. The council has proposed increasing funds for CommUnity Crisis Services’ mobile crisis unit that provides emergency response to people in mental health crises without a police officer and coordinating the response with a 911 call.

“So some things that we’ve talked about so far, and that I think the majority of the council is still committed to, is looking at where we can have unarmed professionals responding in emergency situations,” Bergus said.

RELATED: Iowa City considers 2.5 percent police budget increase with new outreach staffers

Iowa City City Councilor-elect Shawn Harmsen said it may not be necessary to involve the police when dealing with someone experiencing homelessness. He said he believes the proper way to deal with this situation, unless it is a violent incident, is through social services and de-escalation.

“Police officers, let them do the job of when law enforcement is necessary, when there’s a law enforcement job. Let them do that,” Harmsen said. “But when it’s a situation better handled by a social worker or a mental health professional, something like that, let’s have those people do the job.”

Johnson County Supervisor Jon Green said one change to policing he would like to see would include a “professionalized State Department of Public Safety that answers to a hired director that serves at the pleasure of the governor.”

He said though there are instances where law enforcement is needed for the intervention of violent situations, this is not always the case.

“I am deeply interested in working with anyone and everyone who would like to get on board with undertaking any sort of initiatives to refocus some of our resources towards mental health, community well-being,” Green said.

Harmsen said Iowa City’s resources should be spent on increasing public safety, which can be separate from law enforcement.

“Those are two different things and policing can be a part of public safety, certainly in certain circumstances, but to lump that all under the police law enforcement umbrella, I think does a disservice to everybody involved, the community, the people who have contact with authorities and quite frankly to the police themselves,” Harmsen said.

Harmsen added that he has plans to work with local individuals and organizations to address police brutality and other issues that Black and immigrant communities face.

“As a counselor and representing this community, it’s going to be very important, it’s something that I’m going to not only be dedicated to, but I generally enjoy doing is making sure that all these different communities, the full spectrum of our BIPOC communities in Iowa City, are being heard and are being recognized,” Harmsen said.