Police Budgets Are Ballooning as Social Programs Crumble

Cities across the country have defied demands from protesters to defund police despite facing huge budget deficits from Covid-19.

Indigo Olivier July 22, 2020

The newest members of the New York City Police Department (NYPD) attend their police academy graduation ceremony at the Theater at Madison Square Garden, March 30, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Faced with mass teacher lay­offs, deep cuts to edu­ca­tion and social ser­vices, and a loom­ing evic­tion cri­sis, police bud­gets across the nation remain absurd­ly high and have been large­ly insu­lat­ed from Covid-induced belt-tight­en­ing. Worse yet, a num­ber cities have opt­ed to increase police bud­gets, claim­ing the funds are need­ed to pay for reforms. This is despite the fact that racial jus­tice pro­test­ers across the coun­try are clear­ly call­ing for the defund­ing of police — a demand that stems from abo­li­tion­ist prin­ci­ples. Bud­get cuts are seen as part of a process of dis­man­tling pris­ons and polic­ing while invest­ing in com­mu­ni­ty alter­na­tives and social goods, in order to reimag­ine pub­lic safety.

The expansion of the security state, as the welfare state shrivels, is the product of decades of policy.

In Phoenix where activists demand­ed a 25% cut in the police bud­get, the city vot­ed on a $24 mil­lion increase to the depart­ment for the upcom­ing fis­cal year, even as the city antic­i­pates a $26 mil­lion bud­get deficit over the same peri­od. The Phoenix Police Department’s $592 mil­lion annu­al bud­get will account for over 40% of the city’s dis­cre­tionary funds, with $3 mil­lion going to a new police over­sight agency. Reject­ing res­i­dents’ calls to cut police spend­ing, San Diego increased its annu­al police bud­get by $27 mil­lion to $566 mil­lion. The depart­ment will account for about a third of the city’s gen­er­al fund and will cre­ate a new Office of Race and Equi­ty. In Louisville, Ky., where Bre­on­na Tay­lor was shot by police in her bed after offi­cers enforced a no-knock war­rant, the city has decid­ed to increase the annu­al police bud­get by three-quar­ters of a mil­lion dol­lars, while claim­ing to fun­nel resources into reforms like a civil­ian review board. The deci­sion fol­lowed demands to cut $100 mil­lion from law enforce­ment and rein­vest in social ser­vices. Mean­while, the Louisville City School Dis­trict has approved $1.35 mil­lion in cuts to edu­ca­tion and has already laid off 32 employ­ees. Sim­i­lar­ly, Atlanta increased its police bud­get by $14 mil­lion as Geor­gia cut over $1 bil­lion in edu­ca­tion and 4% of the state’s health­care bud­get. Hous­ton, Kansas City, Nashville and Tul­sa have also increased fund­ing to police in the upcom­ing year’s city budgets.

Tracey Corder, the cam­paign coor­di­na­tor on polic­ing work at the Action Cen­ter on Race and the Econ­o­my, is not pleased with this trend. We know that bud­gets are moral doc­u­ments. They reflect pri­or­i­ties,” says Corder. I think it is not only back­wards, but it’s also a lit­tle cow­ard­ly, if we’re being hon­est, to take this moment and decide that we are going to invest in more polic­ing and not in the real things that com­mu­ni­ties are call­ing for that we know actu­al­ly make peo­ple safe.”

On aver­age, rough­ly a third of city and town gen­er­al funds, which are dis­cre­tionary and large­ly made up of prop­er­ty tax­es, are devot­ed to police depart­ments, which often account for the largest bud­get item, accord­ing to an analy­sis by Sludge. In cities like Oak­land, Calif. and Mil­wau­kee, Wis., police bud­gets are clos­er to 45%. Glob­al­ly, the Unit­ed States spends $115 bil­lion on police annu­al­ly, a num­ber that is greater than Sau­di Arabia’s entire annu­al defense budget.

Edu­ca­tion bud­gets have not fared as well. Since the start of the pan­dem­ic, edu­ca­tion jobs have account­ed for near­ly two-thirds of the decline in state and local gov­ern­ment employ­ment,” accord­ing to an analy­sis by Pew Research Cen­ter. The Nation­al Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion warns that with­out addi­tion­al fed­er­al fund­ing, the coun­try is pro­ject­ed to lose 1.9 mil­lion edu­ca­tion jobs — approx­i­mate­ly one-fifth of the work­force that pow­ers pub­lic schools and pub­lic col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties.” High­er edu­ca­tion, which is depen­dent on tuition for fund­ing, still has not recov­ered from the Great Reces­sion, and now faces lost rev­enue from both few­er enroll­ments and less pub­lic fund­ing. We face the prospect of hun­dreds of col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties clos­ing permanently.

These cuts extend beyond edu­ca­tion. Pub­lic ser­vices — from health­care to social secu­ri­ty to afford­able hous­ing — are bear­ing the brunt of aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures while over 20 mil­lion renters are at risk of evic­tion by the end of Sep­tem­ber, with mil­lions more new­ly unem­ployed and with­out insur­ance. With a fed­er­al gov­ern­ment relin­quish­ing its respon­si­bil­i­ties to ensure basic state func­tions like pub­lic health, edu­ca­tion or fair elec­tions, many have asked whether the Unit­ed States has turned into a failed state.

The prod­uct of long-stand­ing policy

The expan­sion of the secu­ri­ty state, as the wel­fare state shriv­els, is the prod­uct of decades of pol­i­cy. Over the last 50 years, with the war on crime and the rise of law-and-order poli­cies, police bud­gets have risen con­sid­er­ably even as cities grew safer, with experts say­ing they found no cor­re­la­tion between police spend­ing and crime rates. High police bud­gets cor­re­spond with cities that are high­ly seg­re­gat­ed and have large Black pop­u­la­tions; poor­er cities tend to ded­i­cate a high­er share of their bud­gets on police inde­pen­dent of crime rates, accord­ing to a Sludge analy­sis.

One thing we can take away from the 2008 reces­sion is that bud­get cuts and lay­offs will dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly affect pub­lic edu­ca­tion. In the decade that fol­lowed the Great Reces­sion, medi­an per capi­ta spend­ing on police dropped and then rose even as medi­an per capi­ta spend­ing on hous­ing and com­mu­ni­ty devel­op­ment, pub­lic wel­fare and edu­ca­tion fell in the 150 largest U.S. cities. Social ser­vices still have not recov­ered to their pre-reces­sion levels.

Police bud­get cuts have main­ly been the result of sus­tained and over­whelm­ing grass­roots pres­sure to defund police and invest in com­mu­ni­ties. How­ev­er, even in a num­ber of cities that have announced cuts to police depart­ments, bud­gets will remain the same or even increase. News out­lets recent­ly claimed Wash­ing­ton, D.C. cut,” defund­ed,” stripped,” slashed” the police bud­get by $15 mil­lion — but it’s still an addi­tion­al $3 mil­lion in fund­ing from the year before, an amount that slight­ly exceeds infla­tion. In Los Ange­les and Philadel­phia, defund­ing the police meant can­celling pro­posed increas­es, essen­tial­ly keep­ing the bud­get untouched.

Even cuts” do not defund the police

Even where activists have man­aged to win con­ces­sions on bud­getary cuts, there is still a long road ahead to real­iz­ing large-scale divest­ment from polic­ing. The $1 bil­lion cut New York City recent­ly approved to its near­ly $6 bil­lion police bud­get, upon fur­ther inspec­tion, was deemed to be the result of what Rep. Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez called fun­ny math” and the New York Times referred to as a bud­getary sleight of hand.” Over $300 mil­lion worth of cuts” were account­ed for by mov­ing school safe­ty offi­cers from the NYPD bud­get to the New York City Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion despite demands from stu­dents and orga­niz­ers to remove cops from schools entire­ly. The school safe­ty pro­gram will remain part of the NYPD until next year and receive a 2% increase in fund­ing. In addi­tion, $134 mil­lion in fringe ben­e­fits asso­ci­at­ed with school safe­ty offi­cers is being count­ed towards the $1 bil­lion fig­ure, so it’s clos­er to $866 million.

New York City’s oth­er bud­get cuts include $65 mil­lion from a pro­gram that sub­si­dizes pub­lic tran­sit to low-income New York­ers, a 40% reduc­tion in fund­ing for afford­able hous­ing, a near­ly 70% cut in arts edu­ca­tion, $182 mil­lion from the Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion, and $20 mil­lion from the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York, where 2,800 adjunct pro­fes­sors and part-time staff mem­bers have already been laid off. Hir­ing freezes have been imposed on teach­ers and a num­ber of agen­cies across the city, exclud­ing police. At the state lev­el, Gov. Andrew Cuo­mo cut $1.1 bil­lion — the exact amount received from the CARES Act — to K‑12 education.

Though the NYPD rep­re­sents less than 6% of the city’s bud­get, the depart­ment is noto­ri­ous for its racism and bru­tal­i­ty through pro­grams like stop and frisk,” as well as the tar­get­ing and sur­veil­lance of Mus­lim New York­ers. Addi­tion­al­ly, Rik­ers Island has become syn­ony­mous with the worst excess­es of the carcer­al state. Despite this real­i­ty, the city spends an aver­age of $337,524 per incar­cer­at­ed per­son at Rik­ers annu­al­ly while spend­ing around $30,000 per stu­dent. As one of the wealth­i­est cities in the world, the prob­lem here is not fund­ing, but priorities.

That elect­ed offi­cials have to be fought tooth and nail to fund social goods while police depart­ments remain large­ly shield­ed from the finan­cial crises that are tear­ing apart our social safe­ty net is a tes­ta­ment to a state that has cho­sen war­fare over welfare. 

Indi­go Olivi­er is an In These Times Good­man Inves­tiga­tive Fellow.

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