In Boston, Los Angeles and Milwaukee, about one in every 10 dollars of local government spending goes to the police. In Minneapolis, it’s about one in every 20 dollars.
American society has not settled on what that number should be — how much of a priority the police ought to have, alongside schools and parks and housing and health care. But the police share of spending has grown over the past 40 years, even as cities have become far safer. And the protesters who are now calling to defund the police, all or in part, are fundamentally questioning what these numbers have become:
Over the last 40 years, police budgets have grown as a share of public spending
Across these 150 large cities, the average share of general expenditures devoted to the police has gradually increased by about 1.2 percentage points since the late 1970s, to 7.8 percent. That change is relatively modest. But it means that residents have watched city police budgets rise by millions of dollars annually — even during lean years for city finances, and through a steep nationwide decline in violent crime that began in the early 1990s.
For comparison, this same set of cities now devotes on average about 5 percent of spending to housing, and 3 percent to parks.
These figures cover not only municipal budgets, but also all money spent on services within a city by different arms of local government, including counties, school districts, housing authorities or public hospital systems funded separately from City Hall. The data was constructed from census records by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, which researches taxation and city finances, and these numbers make it possible to compare police spending across cities where government is structured differently.
The Los Angeles city budget does not include the school system, for example, while the New York City budget does. The Lincoln Institute accounts for such differences. And the data shown here compares police spending with all general expenditures, not city general funds used in other analyses. This data offers a sense of all public priorities, but not necessarily a road map for activists: Police spending controlled by cities can’t simply be moved to independent school districts or county governments.
The average share of public spending devoted to the police in 150 large cities
Police budgets continued to expand over all these years as police unions grew more powerful, and as politicians from both parties competed for the mantle of “law and order.” The 1994 crime bill increased federal aid for policing, enabling cities to continue funding police at high levels even when their budgets were being squeezed. And after violent crime declined, the war on terror ramped up.
The number of officers per capita hasn’t budged as much over the last 20 years, but the technology and gear officers use, and the training they get, have increased significantly.
The long rise in spending is also rooted in the war on crime that began in the 1960s. Federal and local officials wrestled then with how to address concentrated poverty and racial segregation in cities — whether to focus on welfare programs or social control.
“Ultimately, the decision to manage these larger socioeconomic problems with law enforcement and with prisons ends up winning out,” said Elizabeth Hinton, a historian at Harvard who has written a book on that era.
That choice largely remains with us today.
2017 Police Share of All Local Spending
|City||2017 pop.||Police Spending|
Cities with the highest police spending share and more than 250,000 residents are shown by default.
As spending on the police increased, federal aid to cities shrank for antipoverty programs and social services. And increasingly, the police took on those roles, too. A public housing community center in Washington, D.C., became a police outpost, Ms. Hinton documents. A jobs program in Chicago put young people to work — installing cameras and barbed wire around housing projects.
“These things become merged,” Ms. Hinton said, “and by the Carter administration, all urban policy becomes crime policy.”
More recently, the police have added the roles of managing domestic violence and substance abuse, and of responding to growing homeless populations and keeping students safe in schools.
“The police have been used to fill the gaps where city services are not adequate,” said Charles H. Ramsey, the former police chief in Philadelphia and Washington, and a co-chair of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
Mr. Ramsey dislikes the phrase “defund the police.” But he supports the idea that some police funding should be redirected after years of growth in the police mission.
“I don’t even have a problem with that if they re-allocate to give more to substance abuse counselors and mental health professionals,” Mr. Ramsey said. “But then take away some of that responsibility from the police. Don’t just take away money; take away responsibility as well.”
By 2017, all of these factors meant the police took up 13 percent of general expenditures in Baltimore, and 11 percent in Los Angeles. In New York City, that share has hovered around 6 percent, a number in 2017 that amounted to $5.7 billion.
“Even though New York doesn’t show up at the high end of spending as a share of the budget — because we spend so much on everything — it’s a very high number in anyone’s book in absolute terms,” said Howard Chernick, a professor emeritus of economics at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center, who developed the data set used here with Adam Langley at the Lincoln Institute and Andrew Reschovsky at the University of Wisconsin.
How Police Budgets Have Changed As a Share of Public Spending
Note: Three-year rolling average
Beneath these trends is a subtler pattern found in numerous studies: As African-American populations have expanded in cities, so have police departments, by spending and force size.
Ellora Derenoncourt, an incoming professor of economics and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, has found that, dating to the mid-20th century, Northern cities reacted this way to the arrival of African-Americans during the Great Migration.
“You could imagine local governments saying, ‘Let’s invest, let’s put more money into schools and social programs,’” Ms. Derenoncourt said. “That’s not what happens here. Only one particular type of public spending increased. And that’s the police.”
African-Americans migrated to the North for opportunity. But Northern cities moved to thwart that opportunity, she argues, pulling up the ladder for subsequent generations of black families.
The power of white racial fears isn’t necessarily overt.
“If you were to go to a city mayor or a police chief and say, ‘Why are you hiring more police even though crime is going down?’ they wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, it’s because we’re afraid of this segregated black population we have in our city,’” said Stephanie Kent, a professor of criminology at Cleveland State University.
Rather, those fears are expressed through politics, she said, “where any politician who would suggest decreasing spending on crime control — it would be political suicide to do so.”
Any debate over rebalancing those priorities is now clouded by the argument that crime declined because cities threw so many resources at it (researchers say the story is not so straightforward; they cannot fully explain why crime fell). Over the past week, Attorney General Bill Barr and President Trump have echoed that idea, arguing that any move to defund police departments would make cities less safe.
The reality is that most Americans don’t believe that crime declined at all. In surveys, they have repeatedly told pollsters that they think crime in America has gone up.
“People always think crime is a problem, and that it’s a growing problem,” said Emily Owens, an economist who studies crime at the University of California, Irvine.
In this light, spending patterns are less perplexing: Police budgets have grown, just as Americans believe the problem of crime has.
This sense of threat, often racialized, has been constant for 50 years, said Jeffrey Fagan, a law professor at Columbia. Some of the sources may be newer: Now we’re told to fear terrorism. (If you see something, say something.) And President Trump has fanned fears of immigrant criminals.
Mr. Fagan points to the cues all around us reinforcing these threats, like the public-address announcements in the New York subway that warn commuters to safeguard their belongings. “Have a safe day,” the recording offers.
“It’s just a perfect example,” Mr. Fagan said, “of drilling into everyone’s consciousness that there’s a constant threat.”