ONE AFTER another, almost 90 residents and activists testified at a virtual session of the Washington, DC, city council’s judiciary committee on June 15th to oppose a 3.3% increase in the capital’s police budget. Many called for the money to be redirected elsewhere. Some called for the police department’s abolition. On July 7th the council met to discuss next year’s budget, beginning a negotiation process that is likely to be rancorous. Washington is one of several cities grappling with demands to “defund the police”—among them Minneapolis, where the killing of George Floyd by an officer in May has led the city council’s president to vow to “dismantle” the local force.
“Defund” means different things in different circles. But at its core is a demand that police budgets be cut and that money be diverted to other services to support public safety, such as mental-health counsellors and social workers. But these efforts are complicated by the intricacies of current funding arrangements and the presence of several forces in the same area. The federal government provides some resources and states also chip in, but 86% of police spending is locally financed, by counties and municipalities.
Any reform needs to take account of two facts about budgeting: that police departments have long found alternative sources of funds; and that local-government budgets need to be reformed, too.
First, other funding sources. Civil asset-forfeiture laws, which allow police departments to confiscate property and keep some or all of the proceeds, are a common but problematic example. Their use has increased dramatically since they were strengthened in the 1980s to separate drug kingpins from their ill-gotten gains. Often property can be seized without conviction or even a charge. So there are perverse incentives for police departments to expand the use of techniques like reverse drug stings (where officers pose as drug suppliers rather than buyers) and pulling cars over (which often yields traffic fines and sometimes more). Unsurprisingly, like the war on drugs itself, forfeiture disproportionately affects people of colour. An investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union into forfeitures in Philadelphia found that 71% of people who had cash seized without an accompanying conviction were African-American.
How the money raised can be used varies from place to place. Federal law forbids police departments from putting future forfeiture proceeds in their budget plans. Some jurisdictions also ban their use for personnel costs, which make up two-thirds of police spending. Even so, they fund everything from ammunition for SWAT teams to vehicle maintenance. And many local restrictions can be circumvented by “equitable sharing” agreements, which allow local departments to keep a large slice of the proceeds when a federal agency is involved. The sums can be large—the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm, estimates that between 2000 and 2013 Massachusetts law enforcement took in almost $65m under state forfeiture laws, plus $63.5m from equitable-sharing arrangements. Because such methods insulate departments from budget cuts, police forces loth to reform might increase their use.
Second, effective reform requires an understanding of how local-government budgets affect the way police departments do their jobs. Police forces play a crucial role in another alternative means of revenue generation. Since the 1980s, and especially since the global financial crisis of 2007-09, local governments have increasingly relied on fines and fees to fund themselves. In some jurisdictions, police can impose fines for offences as trivial as having mismatched curtains, though the most common are for traffic violations. The police department of Ferguson, Missouri—where the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer led to widespread unrest in 2014—was notorious in this regard. A Department of Justice report in 2015 found that city officials had systematically engaged in “a pattern and practice of constitutional violations” with the aim of “maximising revenue”.
These tactics can wreak havoc on citizens’ lives. Ability to pay is rarely taken into consideration. A small fine attracts further fees if not paid promptly. Non-payment can also lead to suspension of driver’s licences, debt traps, exclusion from public housing and other services, a police record and even jail. Again, areas with larger black and Latino populations are disproportionately affected. Money from police-issued fines and fees tends to go into a general administrative fund. Reducing police budgets will limit how much forces get back, but will not alleviate the pressure local governments put on them to collect the cash.
A reluctance to raise taxes has meant that such methods are near-ubiquitous in local government. Fees and fines are common at every stage of the criminal-justice process. This can have odd and damaging consequences. A report by the Vera Institute of Justice, a non-profit research organisation, found that 41% of the New Orleans public defender’s budget came from bail, fines and fees—meaning that it was being funded by those it was appointed to defend because they could not afford an attorney. And the system can turn predatory. Between 2011 and 2015 the Wayne County Treasurer foreclosed on one in four properties in Detroit because of overdue property-tax bills. The city had been inflating the values of properties when assessing them for tax, levying unaffordable taxes and then foreclosing on owners unable to pay.
As well as being unjust, these methods are inefficient forms of revenue-raising. A report by the Brennan Centre for Justice, a think-tank, looked at the use of criminal-court fees and fines in ten counties across three states. It found that these jurisdictions spent more than $41 for every $100 collected, compared with $0.34 that the Internal Revenue Service spends to collect the same amount. One county in New Mexico spent $117 for every $100 recouped. In addition, localities spend large sums incarcerating people who cannot pay. Fees and fines also make governments less accountable, since they are not subject to the same political scrutiny as new taxes.
Ironically, the very programmes that reformers are demanding might end up being financed by fines and fees. The role of police in raising revenues for local government also gives forces leverage. In 2014, NYPD officers engaged in an unofficial “slowdown”, entailing a virtual halt in issuing parking tickets, which generated $10.5m for the city every week. Police officers claimed that the drop in enforcement was due to fear for their safety after the killing of two NYPD officers, but it was widely interpreted as a protest over a lack of appreciation from New York’s citizens and its mayor, Bill de Blasio. It ended only when the then-NYPD commissioner, Willam Bratton, publicly ordered officers back to work.
So reformers have to consider how police departments will react to budget cuts. “Defunding” advocates hope that budget cuts will end the “over-policing” of neighbourhoods with high non-white populations. But they may take fewer officers off the streets than they suppose. Cuts to departmental budgets agreed on in Los Angeles will take the LAPD down to 9,757 officers from about 10,000; in New York the NYPD, which has roughly 36,000 officers, is merely cancelling the hiring of an additional 1,163. These forces are large enough to adjust to cuts. The smaller forces that make up most of America’s 18,000 law-enforcement agencies have tighter budgets.
Any change will involve serious trade-offs. It will have to be carefully managed. Budget cuts could easily be reversed if enthusiasm for reform wanes because, say, crime spikes and people feel less safe because there are fewer officers. Ultimately, officers’ behaviour matters more than their numbers. Police departments should be glad to have a more limited range of duties. Indeed, some have been advocating this for years. But there will inevitably be institutional resistance, especially from police unions, which suspect that reform will reduce their power.
More important than calls for sweeping reforms may be the hard graft of attending public hearings to scrutinise the budgets of both the police and other public-service providers, and arguing for tax reforms to reduce governments’ reliance on fees and fines. Reforming police departments demands more than starving them of resources. It also requires changing how budgets affect their incentives. Otherwise, defunding may pave the way for more intrusive policing, as forces seek to recoup lost revenue.