(De)fund the police: How much do we spend?

November 2, 2020

Police directing traffic
Photo credit: Logan Campbell

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On September 24, a Kentucky grand jury declined to indict any officers for the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor, instead returning only a relatively minor charge of wanton endangerment during the nighttime raid. The decision fueled renewed anger about the use of force by police officers, culminating in the shooting of two police officers that evening in Louisville.

The shooting of Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman with no criminal record, comes on the heel of years of high profile killings of unarmed Black men by police officers, including Michael Brown in Missouri (2014), Eric Garner in New York (2014), Freddie Gray in Baltimore (2015), Philando Castile in Minnesota (2016), and George Floyd in Minneapolis (2020). To date, no police officer involved in these cases has been convicted of a crime.

According to the Washington Post, 5,740 people have been shot and killed by police since 2015. Although people of all races and ethnicities are killed by police, the rate at which Black and Hispanic Americans are killed is more than twice that of White people.

The American history of police and race

The history of American policing is intertwined with racism. Replacing a history of informal watch groups, the first publicly-funded police forces in the United States were slave patrols, Night Watches, and Indian Constables. These forces, first appearing in the early 1700s, were tasked with enforcing slave statutes, controlling Native Americans, and suppressing racial and ethnic tensions.

Slave patrol
Slave patrolmen reviewing slave passes. Photo credit: Corbis via Getty Images

After the Civil War, the functions of the slave patrols in the South were absorbed by institutions such as the military, local militias, and the Ku Klux Klan. In Southern states, the transition from slave patrols to police departments was described as "seamless," with officers enforcing segregation and Jim Crow laws. In the North, early police departments were established to control growing numbers of recent European immigrants.

The early 20th century saw the professionalization of police forces, with anti-corruption measures separating the police from local politics. Training standards and more rigorous hiring practices were implemented, and police responsibilities became increasingly limited to responding to crime (rather than delivering social services).

Yet the historical function of policing in controlling racial minorities continued into the 20th century. Thousands of Black people were lynched in the late 1800s and early 1900s with the complicity of police officers. Throughout the late 1800s, police were charged with enforcing Jim Crow laws to enforce racial segregation, disenfranchisement, and subjugation.

In the first half of the 20th century, the newly-minted Chicago police was described as a "militarized terror force," systematically blocking the economic mobility of African Americans, while controlling social movements for labor rights. In 1929, the Illinois Crime Survey found that despite accounting for just 5% of Chicago residents, African Americans made up 30% of those killed by police.

Bloody Sunday
In 1965, six hundred protesters for the right to vote, led by Hosea Williams and John Lewis, prepared to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the way to Montgomery, Alabama. Moments later, police officers attacked, leaving 50 people hospitalized. Photo credit: GPA Photo Archive

Police continued to play an important role in the social movements of 20th century. Police violence played an important part of the civil rights movement, with police officers assaulting non-violent protesters during sit-ins, marches, and the Freedom Rides. At the 1963 March on Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr, bore witness to his audience being "staggered by the winds of police brutality".

In the 1970s, the Nixon administration launched the "War on Drugs," which was later described as its attempt to associate "blacks with heroin," and thereby to enable law enforcement to "arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news." Drug possession-related arrests tripled from 1982 to 2007, becoming the leading cause of police arrest. Per-capita police funding expanded dramatically, policing was focused on low-income communities as a means of securing federal funding, and today 80% of people in federal prisons for drug charges are Black or Latino.

High profile cases of police violence against unarmed Black men and women continued through the late 20th century, from the Harlem riots in 1964, triggered by the killing of 15-year-old James Powell, to the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which responded to the beating of the unarmed Rodney King by police officers. Today, the communities where a Black person was most likely to be lynched 150 years ago are the same neighborhoods where today he or she is most likely to be shot by a police officer.

How we fund the police

Calls to "defund the police", as a response to institutional racism, is not a new American concept. The call has, however, gained new prominance and popularity in the last decade, notably popularized by the anti-police violence group Black Lives Matter. Neither candidate in the 2020 presidential candidate has endorsed the sentiment; despite dissimilar views on police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement, both President Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden have called for increasing resources to police departments as a way of reform.

Defund the police sticker
Photo credit: michael_swan

Although some abolitionist groups do indeed advocate for fully shuttering police departments, many others are focused on a re-distributive strategy that moves public funding from one part of government and into another. According to Angela Davis, a leading civil rights and police reform advocate, the goal is "not primarily about dismantling, getting rid of, but it’s about reenvisioning." Or, as described by Mychal Denzel Smith in The Atlantic, it's about trash on the sidewalks in low-income New York neighborhoods, left there because more costly services like trash cleanup have been deprioritized in favor of policing.

Yet funding police is highly decentralized. According to the Urban Institute, 86% of police budgets are at the municipal level, with state budgets chipping in just a small fraction (often for highway patrols). As such, finding the correct balance between police and other public institutions is necessarily a local question. Some institutions have attempted this question, such as a 2017 report from the Center for Popular Democracy that described higher-than-average police budgets in Black-majority cities, at the expense of other basic services.

We used the The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy's database of 150 cities, in which budgets have been standardized to take into consideration funding coming from the local, state, and federal levels.

City spending, by type of expenditure, 2017

Hover over a bar for more information

Source: The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy Fiscally Standardized Cities dataset (2017 update). Dataset is based on U.S. Census data and is constructed to calculate total city spending from all sources (including local, state, and other sources of public funding). Full methodology available here. Box plot shows the median, 25th and 75th percentiles, and the minimum and maximum city values.

In most cities, elementary and secondary schools are the largest category of spending. On average, about 30% of city budgets go to schools (ranging from 6% in San Francisco, CA, to 52% in Rutland, VT). Other large categories of spending include hospitals and utilities like electric power, sewerage, and water supply.

" Police are the second highest category of city spending "

Overall, the police are the second highest category of city spending. In 2017, an average of 6.3% of total city budgets are dedicated to police, or $413 per-person per-year.

On the other hand, spending on other government services is usually much lower: on average, police receives considerably more spending than other social services like housing and community development (3.0%), parks and recreation (2.4%), health (1.8%), public transit (1.7%), public welfare (0.9%), and libraries (0.7%).

Where are the largest police budgets?

As a total dollar amount, the amount spent on police forces is highest in Wilmington, DE ($1,065 per city resident per year), Washington, DC ($922), Baltimore, MD ($807), Ft. Lauderdale, FL ($800), and Los Angeles, CA ($754).

As a proportion of the total city budget, the highest police spenders are Wilmington, DE (14%), Tucson, AZ (13%), Bridgeport, CT (12%), and St. Petersburg, FL (12%). Police spending does not follow clear regional trends, with high police spending observed in the Northeast (Delaware, Maryland), Appalachia (West Virginia), the Southeast (South Carolina, Florida), the Midwest (Missouri), and the West and Southwest (Idaho, New Mexico).

By contrast, the District of Columbia, Maine, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, and North Dakota spend much less on police, as a percent of total city budgets.

Police spending as percent of city budgets, 2017

Source: The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy Fiscally Standardized Cities dataset (2017 update). Dataset is based on U.S. Census data and is constructed to calculate total city spending from all sources (including local, state, and other sources of public funding). Full methodology available here.

In general, we don't find any noticeable trends: in 2017, there was no statistically significant relationship between police spending and city size, crime rate, or the racial and ethnic make-up of cities. We do find that cities with higher total revenue tended to spend a smaller proportion of their budgets on police.

" In 2017, Casper Wyoming spent eleven times more on public safety than on social welfare "

It is clear that the ratio of social welfare spending (which includes public welfare programs like cash assistance, hospitals, health, housing, and community development) to public safety spending (police, fire, and corrections) varies considerably across the country.

In Casper, WY, per-capita public safety spending in 2017 was 11.6 times higher than social welfare. Other cities with much higher public safety spending include Anchorage, AK (7.5 times higher), Warwick, RI (6.5), Nampa, ID (6.0), and Aurora, IL (5.8).

On the flip side, Gulfport, MS spent 11.9 more on social welfare spending than police and public safety in 2017. Flint, MI spent 10.3 times more on social welfare. Other cities with high proportional social welfare spending include Cheyenne, WY (5.3 times higher than public safety), Charlotte, NC (4.7), Washington, DC (4.5), and San Francisco, CA (4.4).

How has police spending changed over time?

To understand long-term trends in police spending, we show trends in city spending from 1977 to 2017.

City spending is highly variable, and is not easily explained by regional differences. In some cities, police spending has increased dramatically over the past forty years years: in Bismarck, ND, public safety spending has increased 303% from 1977 to 2017; in Frederick, MD, it has increased 261%.

In other cities, police spending is proportionally much higher than social welfare spending, but has remained relatively flat over the last forty years (like Reno, NV, or Albuquerque, NM). Just three cities (Fairbanks, AK, Flint, MI, and Louisville, KY) had decreases in per-capita public safety spending in this period.

In others, social welfare spending has been rising over the past forty years. In Rutland, VT, per-capita social welfare spending has increased 2,047% from 1977-2017. Montgomery, AL, and Provo, UT, each saw more than 1,000% increases in social welfare spending. Other cities have cut social spending: Casper, WY, Tallahassee, FL, Topeka, KS, and Las Cruces, NM each cut social welfare spending more than 70% in this period.

Public safety and social welfare spending, 1977-2017

Source: The Lincoln Institute of Land Policy Fiscally Standardized Cities dataset (2017 update). Dataset is based on U.S. Census data and is constructed to calculate total city spending from all sources (including local, state, and other sources of public funding). Full methodology available here. Public safety includes police protection, fire protection, and correction. Social welfare includes public welfare (incl. cash assistance), hospitals, health, housing, and community development.

Safer than ever

Crime rates in the United States have declined significantly in the past twenty-five years. According to data from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, rates of violent crimes and property crimes are less than half today than they were in the early 1990s.

Yet despite the country experiencing less criminal activity, Americans do not feel safer. Polling data from Gallup reveal that even while violent crime rates declined from 80 to 23 per 1,000 people from 1993-2018, nearly every year a majority of Americans reported that crime was going up.

There is no one-size-fits-all level of funding for public safety. In some cities, police department spending vastly outsizes public welfare programs, and police budgets are still continuing to rise. Other cities have smaller budgets overall, where their proportionally large budgets are just a fraction of what larger cities spend. In all cities, budget discussions must be guided by an understanding of the legacy of police departments and racism, slavery, and civil rights. And, of course, by looking at the data.

Want to see for yourself? All our data are on GitHub.

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