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The financial case for defunding the police

It’s time to ask why we continue to spend millions of taxpayer dollars on police misconduct lawsuits and billions more on policing that yields poor outcomes.

An illustration of tiny workers — one in a green jumpsuit, the other in a coral jumpsuit — removing white rocks (with dollars superimposed on them) from a pile that towers above them. That pile is draped with yellow police caution tape. A solitary worker, also in a green jumpsuit, pulls a cart with one dollar-coated white rock on it away from the pile, head hung in resignation.
Sean Collins is a news editor with Vox’s politics and policy team. He’s helped cover elections, Congress, and both the Biden and Trump administrations. Previously, Sean was Vox’s weekend editor.

Part of The Great Rebuild Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

The costs of bad policing are exacted in lives, in lost time, in terror, and in money — and present an interconnected moral and economic case for defunding the police.

Take the story of Daniel Prude, a Chicago man brought to his brother’s home in Rochester, New York, for help with mental illness. After Prude left his brother’s house early one morning, his brother, worried, called 911. The police found Prude naked in the middle of the street, seemingly in a state of great confusion. As snow came down that March day, they did not clothe him, nor did they orient him; instead, they handcuffed him and hooded him and put their bodies on him. The 41-year-old died of asphyxiation.

Prude’s story — which came to light months after it occurred, thanks to the family’s petitions for the release of body camera footage — continues. But others have reached their conclusion.

Christina Eilman was arrested in 2006 in Chicago while on her way home to California after exhibiting signs of a mental crisis; officers released her in an unfamiliar neighborhood where she was raped and later fell from a seventh-floor window, causing serious brain injuries and paralysis. She ultimately received $22.5 million from the city to settle a police misconduct case on the same day it agreed to pay $10.25 million to Alton Logan, who was sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit due to testimony extracted by officers known for torturing and framing Black men.

According to the most recent data available from the US Census Bureau, in 2017, state and local governments spent $114 billion on police forces and $78.8 billion on prisons. Policing can take up a large chunk of city budgets; for instance, Chicago planned to spend $2 billion, 15 percent of its budget, on its police force in 2020.

The aftereffects of bad policing only add to the financial strain on governments, even after negligent and criminal officers leave the force. Over the past 10 years, Chicago has spent more than half a billion dollars settling police misconduct cases, plus more than $200 million in lawyers’ bills since 2004 defending police actions. And Chicago isn’t alone; police misconduct bills over the past five years in New York City have topped $300 million; in the 2018–2019 fiscal year, Los Angeles spent $91.5 million.

No city can afford these sorts of costs in the best of times — and these are not the best of times. Before Covid-19 shuttered parts of the economy, some cities whose finances were in disarray began to use bonds to pay police misconduct settlements. But these bonds put cities at financial risk: They find their credit ratings affected by them, and their ability to pay the bonds affects their ability to borrow in the future. It has put taxpayers — the people most easily called upon to make up financial shortfalls — in jeopardy.

Taxpayers also bear the weight of police overtime, a cost exacerbated by our extraordinary times. Cities across the United States have responded to anti-racist uprisings by deploying extra police, spending hundreds of millions of dollars to do so; for instance, New York spent $115 million in overtime in just two weeks earlier this year. But police across the country have also responded to those protesters with public displays of brutality, putting taxpayers in the position of paying to be beaten, tear-gassed, and, in some cases, arbitrarily detained — all raising the specter of future payouts to victims.

Cities don’t have this money. The coronavirus has left them in dire financial shape; early on in the pandemic, the mayor of Phoenix, Arizona, which will fall $26 million short this year, told Vox that the Covid-19 recession “feels like falling off a cliff.”

And other cities are faring far worse. New Orleans has forecast between $130 million and $170 million in losses. Boston is planning on $65 million in revenue losses for the next year. States are in just as much danger; Florida can expect a shortfall of $16 billion to $23 billion in the next three fiscal years; California has a $54 billion deficit. Cities and states are being forced to take action through cuts.

“We’re now shifting into this new paradigm of austerity, wherein a number of things will be de facto defunded,” said Seft Hunter, director of Black-led organizing for the grassroots social justice organization Community Change. “We need to then have a conversation around where cities and states should deploy resources.”

Part of that conversation is whether cities should continue to fund policing as usual. City leaders must answer whether it is wise to continue to spend millions of dollars on lawsuits; whether it is a good idea to budget for overtime that might result in police acting in ways that cement resentment; and whether it is a smart use of resources to force police to do the work of social workers and paramedics, without the same qualifications.

A number of cities are already beginning to defund police departments as a way of addressing budget shortfalls and the ringing alarm of protesters who, for months, have demanded disinvestment of resources in policing that is violent, biased, and ineffective. Some of these cities have reinvested that money in programs that activists argue will save money — and lives — in the long run.

But there is also a case to be made that defunding the police could bolster the economy. “We do have a shortage of a range of jobs that are necessary and a vision of reinvestment in Black communities and providing what communities need: First responders, child care — teachers and providers,” said Dorian Warren, Hunter’s colleague and president of Community Change.

Defunding the police would, in theory, lead to the creation of new jobs in these areas. And it could lead to spending on training people to fill those jobs, as well as on the infrastructure and support staff needed to make sure new social workers or mediators or paramedics are successful in their work. Some of these new jobs would come at the expense of old ones in policing, but could also provide new opportunities and diversify the types of well-paying jobs available. And in making that reallocation, advocates argue, any strain on budgets in the short term could pay great dividends later.

In many ways, said activist and Pod Save the People co-host Brittany Packnett Cunningham, defunding provides both social and economic benefits: “The long-term gains are really around the expanding of the political imagination that puts people first, and that recognizes that economic decisions have human costs.”

The public asks police to solve problems for them — through patrols, they are supposed to stop crimes from happening, and through investigations, they are supposed to solve the crimes they do not prevent.

But data and anecdotal evidence indicate police forces are failing at both. Instead, bias in patrolling has led minority communities to view police with suspicion — if not outright contempt — and an inability to solve crimes means most violent criminals are never caught

When it comes to patrolling, studies have found a stark racial bias — that Black and Latinx Americans are stopped more often than white Americans. And prominent work by researchers such as Harvard University economist Roland Fryer Jr. has found Black and Latinx people face violence at those stops more often than white people do; Fryer published a paper in 2019 that found Black and Latinx Americans are 50 percent more likely to suffer force from police than white Americans are. More recent studies have found that figure to be an undercount, and the likelihood of biased violence to be far higher.

The results of this research are reflected in narratives from the policed.

“I’ve always seen police mishandling me and my people,” one Baltimore man told the Portals Policing Project, which collects policing stories from communities of color. “I’ve had evidence planted on me. ... I’ve had money and evidence removed over the years. I’ve had police get on the stand and flat-out lie.”

This research and these narratives serve as important reminders of the problem with executing patrols as they are currently conducted: Police cannot be seen as protectors because they too often brutalize those they are meant to protect. This leads to poor outcomes, reducing community trust and cooperation with police, and draining time that could be spent on proactive crime reduction and apprehending those who have committed crimes.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation tracks “clearance rates” — essentially, solved crimes. The most recent data the FBI has is for 2018, and that year, law enforcement either arrested or killed murder suspects 62.3 percent of the time. Officers closed rape cases 33.4 percent of the time, robbery cases 30.4 percent of the time, and aggravated assaults 52.5 percent of the time. And these figures likely overestimate officers’ success, given that most violent crimes are not reported and thus are not included in the FBI’s calculations.

These clearance rates have remained fairly stable for several decades despite increases in police budgets, suggesting that giving departments more money does not necessarily result in better outcomes. And in an economy that has been devastated by Covid-19 lies an opportunity for smarter — rather than more — spending on police.

In the United States, activists have for centuries called for radical changes to policing and the criminal justice system. Post-Reconstruction, W.E.B DuBois made what has become a familiar argument against policing, writing that police forces were an enforcement arm of a larger white supremacist system meant to ensure “no power was left in Negro hands.” He gave examples, writing of police officers harassing Black communities while affording them none of the policing benefits white communities enjoyed.

Demands for better policing have been closely linked to the struggle for civil rights. Although people of all ethnicities are victims of police killings, people of color disproportionately bear the economic, mental, and physical weights of unfair and callous police action.

As a result, some activists have called for the abolition of police — an idea recently explained in detail by Josie Duffy Rice for Vanity Fair. This is exactly what it sounds like: a world without police. Instead of law enforcement, state and local governments would fund new groups mandated to solve mental health crises and domestic disputes, to enforce speed limits and prevent stampedes at large gatherings, to investigate crimes and unravel mysteries. And for many, abolishing police would go hand in hand with the abolition of prisons and a reimagining of what constitutes justice.

Immediately abolishing the police would radically change the lives of many of America’s people of color and free up hundreds of billions of dollars, giving cities and states freedom to allocate resources and plug budget shortfalls in new ways. But abolition is not an idea that has been accepted by politicians — or by most Americans.

What has gained more immediate traction — and what many police abolitionists see as a stepping stone to their ultimate goal — is defunding the police, or reducing police departments’ budgets, and reallocating money toward other programs meant to encourage crime prevention, community cohesion, and social welfare.

As Packnett Cunningham put it, “the seeds are starting to bloom.”

The push to defund has been spurred by a series of prominent police killings this year, like those of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, but also by violent — and sometimes deadly — incidents involving people suffering from mental illness, like Prude.

Money taken from police departments would be used in part to build up cities’ capacity for crisis care, but also to hire public servants better suited to many of the tasks that consume police officers’ time, from dealing with traffic problems to assisting with substance dependency issues. While giving departments more money hasn’t increased the clearance rate, by redistributing officer duties, more crimes could perhaps be solved.

It would then be possible to reduce negative interactions with police as well as opportunities for police misconduct.

A number of cities have begun some limited experiments in defunding the police. The city council of Austin, Texas, recently voted to slash its department’s funding by $150 million — a third of the department’s budget — and proposed moving some of the money to programs aimed at expanding health care, access to food, and preventing violence. The cuts would be made possible by not filling vacant positions, moving some nonpolicing duties to other city agencies, and canceling plans for new cadet classes. New York City’s council approved cuts in similar areas and plans to redistribute $1 billion to youth programs, education, internet connection programs, and social services. In a reminder that making the cuts is only the first step, it has been noted that the feasibility of actually enacting and maintaining these approved cuts remains an open question.

Los Angeles; San Francisco; Baltimore; Washington, DC; Hartford, Connecticut; Portland, Oregon; Salt Lake City; Seattle; and Philadelphia are among the other cities that have already voted to cut police budgets. And the Minneapolis City Council has promised to work to “dismantle” its police department and rebuild it from the ground up, with some of its funding going to other programs.

These cities are just getting started, but there are a few prominent examples of how dismantling and defunding can work. Camden, New Jersey, dramatically reformed its police department in 2013, and despite some criticism, has seen some positive outcomes. And Eugene, Oregon, has moved much of its crisis response to a separate agency called CAHOOTS, which, at a cost of $2.1 million per year, serves residents having problems with mental health, homelessness, and substances. The program’s coordinator claims that $2.1 million investment saves his community more than $15 million per year.

Given their financial constraints and the fact that no federal aid for state and local governments appears to be forthcoming, some cities now defunding police would have made cuts to their police programs anyway. However, without the pressure from national uprisings and hardworking activists, they may not have reinvested that money — and might have failed to reap the future dividends of these reinvestments.

Defunding police departments successfully would create a virtuous cycle, in which communities reap social and political benefits that translate into economic benefits for cities, states, and the communities themselves.

An example might be found in one of the ways police departments do bring in money. A number of cities use police departments to generate revenue through ticketing, fines, court fees, and asset seizures; a recent study by Rebecca Goldstein, Michael W. Sances, and Hye Young You found that 80 percent of US cities benefit from police this way and that 6 percent of cities — mostly smaller ones — rely on funds generated by their police departments for more than 10 percent of their revenue.

A prime example is the small city of Ferguson, Missouri. Following the uprising in 2014, the US Department of Justice found the city’s police department was under pressure to generate revenue through tickets and court fees, and that it responded to this pressure by finding novel, often petty, ways to ticket and arrest citizens. That initiative was enacted largely on the city’s minority population, depleting the resources of an already disadvantaged population and further souring the community’s perception of officers.

Defunding the police could reduce the amount of money cities cull from these activities — and full abolition certainly would. But communities of color would then have more funds to invest in themselves and to inject into their local economies. Cities would be able to reap the benefits of that activity through taxation, be it from sales taxes made on purchases or investments in homes.

A common critique of defunding the police is that officers would lose their livelihoods. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot made a related argument in the New York Times: “You are eliminating one of the few tools that the city has to create middle-class incomes for black and brown folks.”

Activists have argued, however, that it is morally wrong to allow many people of color to suffer so that some may be allowed entry into the middle class.

“There are so many other options — especially for people who want to do right by their community,” Packnett Cunningham said. Options would include new jobs like those Warren imagined: new positions in mental health and educational services, in health care and at city hall. If those jobs had pay structures similar to police work, for which the median annual wage is $65,400, they would also be a path to the middle class. And as Hunter pointed out, with overtime, take-home pay for civil servants who respond to emergencies can rise quickly: “Sometimes, you see a line firefighter making more than the mayor,” he said.

Repurposing officers could also lead to the direct economic empowerment of others, Warren said. For instance, police could be put to work addressing wage theft — a crime mostly committed against low-wage workers (who are disproportionately people of color) that causes several billion dollars of lost income per year.

“We know that employers flout the law all the time, and there’s no penalty,” Warren said. “If you want to redirect police officers, hire them in the city labor department to enforce employers who are cheating Black workers out of wages.”

In so doing, Warren said, cities can begin to think “differently about who gets enforced and who doesn’t.” And it could have a political benefit as well.

Research by Vesla Weaver and Amy Lerman, as well as others, has found that civic engagement — including voting — declines not just following arrests but after police contact. The studies also suggest repeated negative encounters lead to steeper engagement declines. These declines, Owens and Walker found, could be countered through positive engagement with community organizations.

This research suggests eliminating — or even reducing — those negative encounters would increase civic participation and strengthen the public trust in government. It could ensure “that democracy is actually responsive to the aspirations and calls of the people,” Hunter said.

The benefits of defunding the police are limited only by imagination, the activists Vox spoke with said.

Funds taken from the police could serve as an immediate form of economic stimulus created and controlled at the local level — stimulus badly needed, given the federal government’s failure to craft a new aid package.

Using funds this way would allow cities to give “resources to people who need them now, [people] who cannot put food on the table, who can’t access basic services, whose water is getting shut off, whose electricity is getting shut off because they can’t make their payments because they’ve lost their jobs,” Warren said.

One of the most common forms of wealth in the US is a family’s home, but Black families have struggled with homeownership, particularly following the Great Recession. And many of the 40.6 percent of Black families who do own homes live in devalued neighborhoods; according to Andre M. Perry, a fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, the average Black home is devalued by $48,000.

Higher home values brought on by community development would be good for cities as well, opening the door for new sources of property tax revenue.

There are myriad ways employment might be affected as well. Economists such as Jhacova Williams and Valerie Wilson at the Economic Policy Institute have detailed why Black Americans have higher rates of underemployment than white Americans. One reason is that Black people do not have the capital — such as from a home — that would allow for extended periods of unemployment; instead, they are forced to accept subpar opportunities out of an immediate need to pay bills.

If cutting police budgets leads to fewer police encounters as well as fewer arrests and fewer sentences, “there is a greater possibility for living wages,” Packnett Cunningham said. “The amount to which we see people pay unlivable wages, and the excuse is ‘You have a record’ — that excuse disappears.”

Looking at defunding the police from this perspective, the question becomes less about what cities and communities lose when police are taken out of the equation, and more, Packnett Cunningham said, “How much more can we gain in human brilliance and creativity and innovation?”

Sean Collins is the weekend editor at Vox, and reports on civil rights protests, the Trump administration, and the 2020 presidential election.

This story is part of The Great Rebuild, a project made possible thanks to support from Omidyar Network, a social impact venture that works to reimagine critical systems and the ideas that govern them, and to build more inclusive and equitable societies. All Great Rebuild coverage is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.


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