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Government / Budgets

The reality of US city budgets: Police funding eclipses most other agencies’

City Monitor analysed the past three years of general-fund budgets from US cities that have seen major or noteworthy protests in 2020.

Across the US, protesters stand on sidewalks and city streets holding signs, megaphones and petitions. They carry the names of the victims on their lips as they speak out about the police brutality that has led to the deaths of so many Black Americans: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, to name a few.

police in riot gear
Police in riot gear walk down Main Street to disperse protesters on 30 May, 2020, in Louisville. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

Some protests result in violence from both protesters and police. Some are largely peaceful. As protests continue for the third week following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, one demand rings louder than the rest: defund the police.

The rallying cry has become a focus because US police departments often receive the majority of a city budget’s “general fund”.

Municipal general funds are financed mainly with taxes such as property, income and sales taxes. They also consist primarily of discretionary money, which means they are not required to go to any specific service. Because of this, it is most likely those funds would be reallocated if cities were to defund police.

But budgets, like cities, are complex and ever-changing. The variables involved in balancing the financial needs of a city government can make it unclear how much is too much or too little to spend on police – or any other department, for that matter. What is clear is that most US cities dedicate far more to police funding than they spend on other city services.

As cities across the US begin to seriously question the amount they spend on policing, better data and analysis will be crucial in deciding how to use the money that police departments do get.

City Monitor analysed the past three years of general fund budgets from US cities that have seen major or noteworthy protests. We also looked at violent-crime rates and officer-involved shootings over that time period.

While this is not an exhaustive study, several findings emerged from the data. First, there did not seem to be any meaningful correlation between per capita police spending and improvements in violent-crime rates. Second, cities where police have recently reviewed or reformed use-of-force practices generally saw more-peaceful protests.

Phoenix

In 2018, the city of Phoenix worked with the National Police Foundation (NPF) to analyse deadly use-of-force cases after the city experienced a sharp increase in fatal shootings by police officers.

Among the recommendations from the NPF’s report were improving officer training, documenting when officers point their guns at people, improving consistency in data collection and increasing meaningful community engagement.

In 2019, Phoenix’s fatal police shootings were cut in half, according to data from the Washington Post’s Fatal Force database. Based on year-to-date numbers for 2020, the city is on track to further reduce those encounters.

During recent protests in Phoenix, protesters called for police to kneel as a sign that their protests were not falling on deaf ears. And they did. As in most US cities where protests have occurred, the attitude of the protests can change day by day, but compared with many, Phoenix has experienced largely peaceful protests.

Phoenix reduced its violent-crime rate by 4.06% between 2017 and 2019. The city spends an average of $339 per resident on policing.

Camden, New Jersey

In 2013, Camden dissolved its city-managed police force and instituted a county-controlled force in the wake of then-governor Chris Christie’s crippling cuts to state aid for municipalities. After a pressure campaign from local activists, the new department eventually changed how it policed the streets, and set up new success measures for evaluating the department’s performance.

Camden has seen predominantly peaceful protests since the end of May. During at least one protest, police officers and residents marched side by side.

Camden reduced its violent-crime rate by 20% between 2017 and 2019. According to the Camden County Police Department, violent crime is down 42% since 2012.

Of the cities we examined, Camden spends the most per capita from its general fund on police. Through its shared-policing agreement and other city-managed police efforts, the city spends an average of $946 per capita on police each year.

Portland

In 2014, the US Department of Justice won a settlement agreement to reform the Portland Police Bureau after an investigation found patterns of excessive use of force by officers against people with actual or perceived mental illness. Among the requirements of the settlement were that the police enhance their policy, training and accountability when it came to dealing with the public.

Portland’s FY 2020 budget includes funding to maintain compliance with the settlement agreement and to enhance police accountability and training.

Over the past three weeks, Portland has seen relatively peaceful protests when compared with other US cities.

The city’s average violent-crime rate for the past three years was the lowest of the cities we examined. It has neither risen nor fallen during that time.

Portland’s fatal police shootings began increasing in 2018, but data from the first six months of 2020 indicate they are once again declining.

Portland spends an average of $335 per resident on police.

Louisville

Louisville, the city where police fatally shot Breonna Taylor in her home while serving a no-knock warrant this year, began its protests with considerable police aggression towards protesters. There are accounts of police firing rubber bullets and tear gas into crowds and at journalists.

Louisville saw a sharp increase in fatal police shootings in 2018. That number went down in 2019, but there have already been as many fatal incidents in the first half of 2020 as there were in all of 2019.

Louisville is the only city we examined where the violent-crime rate actually increased between 2017 and 2019, from 647 incidents per 100,000 residents to 806.

Louisville spends an average of $292 per resident on police.

New York City

New York, where Eric Garner was killed in 2014 while being detained by police, has also experienced aggressive police reaction to protests. In one incident, an NYPD cruiser drove into a crowd of protesters in Brooklyn.

While NYC reduced its violent-crime rate by 20% between 2017 and 2020, it also saw nearly three times as many fatal police shootings over that time period.

New York spends an average of $604 per each of its 8.4 million residents on police. The city organises its budget differently than the other cities we examined. It contains different department structures and includes the Department of Education, a line item missing in most other general-fund budgets.

Minneapolis

Minneapolis, the site of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of police, has seen considerable violence in protests from both protesters and police.

Minneapolis has one of the higher violent crime rates among the cities we examined. Between 2017 and 2019, the city saw a 6% reduction in its violent-crime rate, from 1,101 violent crimes per 100,000 to 1,029.

The city spends an average of $429 per capita on police.

Police reform, transparency and accountability

“Traditionally, public participation meant voting, running for office, being involved in political campaigns, attending public hearings and keeping informed on important issues of the day by reading government reports or the local newspaper,” writes the Government Finance Officers Association, an organisation that represents public-finance officials throughout the United States and Canada.

In the past three weeks, the US has witnessed a less frequent means of public participation in the budgeting process: protests.

Because of these protests, a number of city governments are now reconsidering their police funding.

Last week, Portland, delayed its vote on the final budget over debates on police funding, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported.

The New York City Council has proposed cutting $1 billion from the NYPD.

Boston is reportedly redirecting $3 million from its police overtime budget to public-health budgets instead.

Los Angeles and San Francisco are among cities also actively exploring reducing police department funding.

Simply removing money from police budgets is unlikely to solve a city’s police violence problem. The issue is also strongly tied to whether police funding is being used to enhance transparency and accountability in police departments.

Barry Friedman, director of the Policing Project, notes that cities require less accountability when it comes to how police spend money than they do from other municipal departments. That black box not only means that police departments as a whole don’t have a good handle on what works but that citizens are more prone to distrust police tactics.

It is clear that change is coming for police departments across the US. For comprehensive reform to have a positive effect, city governments will need to consider not only how much money they are directing to police but what kind of accountability and transparency their citizens will demand from those dollars.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at City Monitor