By David R. Eichenthal

The Fiscal Case for Defunding the Police

The original article was originally published as an opinion piece on NY Daily News.

Demands to “defund the police” are seen as radical; they’re not. While few are suggesting an end to policing, it is time to end the exceptional place that police — and public safety and law enforcement in general — have held in budget debates in cities and counties across the nation.

I have worked on local government budgets for the better part of the last 30 years in New York and around the nation. During that time, the starting point for most debate has been to put police at the top of the priority list. This was born out of the explosion in crime — especially violent crime — in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At the time, there was essentially one play in the playbook: more police and more jail beds.

Based on Census Bureau data, the number of sworn police officers in local government grew from approximately 375,000 in 1992 to nearly 470,000 in 2016. While this was roughly in line with population growth, the growth in police departments did not abate when crime dramatically declined.

At the same time, the number of inmates held in local jails increased from just under 445,000 to slightly over 740,000. Only in recent years has there been a modest reduction in local jail population, mostly in larger cities and counties like New York.

For mayors and city councils, spending and the number of sworn officers became a way to communicate a commitment to crime reduction and, in some cases, their guarantee that things would never go back to the high crime rates of the early 1990s. Different strategies that called for fewer police and less incarceration were rejected as soft on crime. A successful effort to block new jail construction in New York in the early 1990s was greeted with an editorial headlined “Thugs on the loose” in this newspaper.

Police and corrections became sacred cows in the local budget process. In the face of fiscal pressures, other departments had to make cuts, but police and corrections agencies were typically deemed “essential services” and distinguished from “discretionary spending” such as education or housing. When law enforcement agencies did make cuts, it was often to civilians — resulting in sworn officers performing the same work previously done by civilians at a higher cost.

By the 2000s, many cities nationally essentially became public safety departments, with most employees in either police or fire that did a few other things on the side. For example, 38% of total general fund spending in Memphis goes to the police — with another 26% going to the fire department. Spending for parks, libraries and housing combined accounted for less than 10%.

The call to defund the police is really a call to rethink how local governments budget for safety and justice. It rejects an approach that measures success on the amount of spending on law enforcement and recognizes that a prevention-first approach may be a better investment.

And it comes at a time when local governments are making tough budget decisions to meet the fiscal challenge caused by the pandemic. One mid-size city mayor in the Midwest has noted that if he left police and fire untouched by cuts, he would have to eliminate every other department to close his projected deficit resulting from the COVID-19 recession

This rethinking will likely lead to better policing. Arresting powers will be more narrowly applied and used only in response to more serious offenses. Fewer officers will also make it easier for departments to set higher standards for who becomes and remains as a police officer.

Defunding the police is not a panacea. Just as the level of spending on police was a poor substitute for measuring a community’s commitment to crime reduction, it will also fail if it is the primary measure of a commitment to justice and safety.

But the debate over how to defund the police is a vital one for local governments, and long overdue.