Thanks to decades of spending, many local police departments now resemble well-armed military squads. But budget shortfalls and protests will likely force a change.
Among Delaware’s beach towns, Dewey Beach, sandwiched between artsy Rehoboth to the north and family-friendly Bethany Beach to the south, is known as a place to party after a day of sun and surf. Beach bars like Starboards, famous for boozy brunches, and the Rusty Rudder draw big crowds from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Actually, Dewey isn’t much of a township at all. It sits on a sandbar just two blocks wide and one mile long and its year-round population is roughly 300.
It might surprise you to find out that until recently the Dewey Beach Police Department— which swells from 11 officers to 41 in the summer— had a trove of some 2,634 pieces of military equipment including two Humvees, a diesel troop carrier, a Unimog with a loader and backhoe, two five-ton dump trucks, dozens of assault packs, 50 ammunition chests and assorted military rifles and pistols. Despite the fact that calls to police are most often about loitering and that the town’s only homicide took place in 2012, Dewey police thought it necessary to amass acres of military gear that the federal government was giving away. In September the town forced the police to auction off the equipment. The proceeds amounted to $185,982.
Dewey Beach, DE, a beach town with a population of about 300, amassed $4 million worth of military supplies that it later auctioned off after pressure from residents.
“Residents in the town became frustrated that we acquired a lot of equipment and that it was being stored for a use that we weren’t sure was actually ever going to happen,” says Scott Koenig, Dewey Beach’s town manager since 2018.
Dewey Beach’s recent stockpile of military equipment isn’t at all unusual. Since the early 1990s, more than $7 billion worth of excess U.S. military equipment has been transferred from the Department of Defense to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, free of charge, as part of its so-called 1033 program. As of June, there are some 8,200 law enforcement agencies from 49 states and four U.S. territories participating. Dewey Beach’s military equipment initially cost the Department of Defense $4 million to acquire.
You give police these kinds of military toys and that’s the attitude they then bring when they engage with the public. It’s a militarization of police attitudes.
Over the past three decades, programs like 1033 have helped fuel an arms race among the nation’s police departments, giving some the air of paramilitary regiments armed to the teeth, instead of friendly neighborhood patrols.
“You give police these kinds of military toys and that’s the attitude they then bring when they engage with the public. It’s a militarization of police attitudes,” says founder of the town’s watchdog group, Jeffrey Smith.
According to FBI statistics, the country’s violent crime rate (which includes murder, rape and robbery) has fallen by half since 1993. Meanwhile, between 1993 and 2017, the median real per capita spending by the 150 largest cities on police grew 42%, according to a Lincoln Institute of Land Policy database. In 2017, state and local government spending on police reached $115 billion.
In the wake of the George Floyd killing and subsequent protests against racism and police brutality, calls for defunding and demilitarizing the police are gaining momentum. Cities like Minneapolis, where Floyd died under the knee of a policeman on Memorial Day, are discussing moving that money from police into health care, mental health and other community programs. In New York City, protesters demanding $1 billion in cuts to the NYPD’s $6 billion budget are camping out in front of City Hall ahead of New York’s July 1 budget deadline.
While the notion of defunding the police may sound like a radical idea, it’s not hard to see how we got here, according to Nancy La Vigne, vice president of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. “What the [local citizens] see is that those dollars go to police patrolling their communities—stopping, questioning, cuffing, frisking, arresting—for low level crimes but this has not been successful in clearing cases for serious crimes like homicides.” Nor has it helped address growing problems like drug addiction and homelessness.
Research from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law shows a surge of officers in the 1990s—paid for by an injection of cash from the federal government—had a modest, downward effect on crime during that decade. After the grant money ran out in 2000 and the hiring push slowed, however, the impact on crime became negligible.
Police Spending Quickly Bounces Back After 2008 Crisis
Median per capita spending on police in 150 largest U.S. cities has been rising since at least 1993 despite a dramatic drop in violent crime.
That’s because increases in police staffing and spending don’t occur in a vacuum. While more police officers might reduce crime in the short term, there are lots of other factors at play, like increases in per capita income, an aging population, decreases in alcohol consumption and a shift toward data-driven policing, all of which helped push crime rates down (though the latter also led to broken-windows and stop-and-frisk tactics that disproportionately target communities of color). In addition, soaring incarceration rates and spending have had essentially no effect on deterring crime since 1990, the Brennan Center research says.
And still, police spending has continued to balloon while other local programs have shrunk. Median per capita spending on police, adjusted for inflation, rose from $359 in 2007, just before the Great Recession devastated state and local budgets, to $374 in 2017. The number of police officers has remained flat during that time. During the same period, median per capita spending on housing and community development declined from $217 to $173 and spending on public welfare programs fell from $70 to $47.
Spending On Social Services Hasn’t Recovered After The Great Recession
As social service programs grapple with tighter budgets—especially in the wake of the 2008 recession—their functions are increasingly being offloaded onto police officers
So, how exactly are these growing police budgets being spent? Salaries are by far the biggest line items on a police budget, conservatively accounting for two-thirds of police budgets nationally. A more inclusive method of accounting—including overtime or benefits, for instance—typically puts personnel expenditures at somewhere between 85% and 90% of police department budgets. “Policing is a labor intensive activity,” says Dr. Alexander Weiss, a staffing expert who advises police departments across the country.
These salaries have grown faster than inflation and, in some cases, cities’ fiscal capacities, Weiss says. In Chicago, for instance, a new police officer in 1992 would have been making $59,000 (in 2020 dollars, adjusted for inflation) in base salary by the end of their first year on the job. Today, a new Chicago police officer makes $68,616 after a year on the job—a bump of more than 16%. That’s not to mention the potential for tens of thousands of dollars more in overtime.
It’s no accident that police compensation has grown in lockstep with the power of police unions. Police unions began cropping up in the early 20th century, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that they began consolidating power in response to activists pushing for police reform. The unions fought against oversight and civilian review boards and advocated fiercely for their own ranks. They developed strict rules that remain in place for most police forces today. “You can’t dock pay, or vacation, or violate the contract without repercussions for grievances and arbitration,” says James McCabe, a 21-year veteran of the New York City Police Department who served as the Commanding Officer of Labor Relations.
Weiss recalls that in the 1970s, it wasn’t unusual for an officer to retire after 25 years with a pension equal to 50% of their salary. Now, Weiss says, a more typical police pension is closer to 90% of an officer’s salary. Derek Chauvin, one of the Minneapolis police officers charged in connection with the killing of George Floyd, is qualified to receive a yearly pension of $50,000 as early as age 50—a possible lifetime benefit of more than $1 million—even if he is convicted.
It’s not just salary and overtime the police unions negotiate. Increasingly, they help determine working conditions and the rights of officers facing discipline; many experts say the unions have played a leading role in blocking reform efforts and shielding individual officers from punishment for misconduct.
Police unions aren’t timid about challenging politicians and police bosses for public opinion. No sooner did the City of Los Angeles announce it was reviewing a proposal to cut $150 million from the police department’s budget than the city’s police union tweeted that the result of those cuts would be “longer responses to 911 calls; officers calling for backup won’t get it; rape, murder & assault investigations won’t occur or will take forever to complete.” The union is also running video ads opposing the cuts.
In New York, in 2014, when a judge recommended that the officer who was accused of choking Eric Garner be fired and the NYPD came under scrutiny, the Police Benevolent Association President responded: “I’m sorry to say that we have to tell our police officers, ‘take it a step slower.’”
Since their inception, police departments in the United States have been tasked with enforcing policies that today would be considered discriminatory if not downright racist. In the Antebellum South they began as slave patrols whose function was to maintain order among plantation laborers, discipline defiant slaves and hunt down runaways. In the North, police departments were first charged with maintaining law and order among the waves of Irish, Italian, German, and Eastern European immigrants that looked and acted differently, as they poured into cities like Boston and New York.
After Reconstruction, the slave patrols morphed into local police departments determined to enforce Jim Crow laws subjugating Black Americans. Police power continued to expand after the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The 1965 Law Enforcement Assistance Act, part of President Lyndon Johnson’s administration’s War on Crime, paved the way for the militarization of police by increasing federal involvement in local policing through grants.
The support for local law enforcement from the federal government continued to grow with a series of laws passed under president after president, from Reagan to Trump, that further aligned police departments with the military. The 1033 program the Dewey Beach PD fed off of, and the Byrne Justice Assistance Grants, one of the main funnels of government money into local police departments, are the two most visible programs created by those laws. The ACLU has called for rollbacks of both, arguing that they perpetuate violence against communities of color.
Another effect of police militarization: the rise of paramilitary Special Weapons and Tactics teams and so-called no-knock raids in search of illegal drugs. In 1984, Congress allowed state and local law enforcement to keep the vast majority of drugs, weapons and drug money they seized, turning drug raids into money making operations for police departments. Police SWAT raids jumped from 3,000 a year in the early 1980s to 45,000 by 2007. In March, Breonna Taylor—whose name has also become a rallying cry for Black Lives Matter activists in recent weeks—was killed by Louisville, Kentucky police who entered her apartment with a no-knock warrant. No drugs were found in the apartment.
As funding for social safety net programs have decreased over the years, police officers have been left with additional burdens they are ill-equipped to handle.
In the 1990s, overbearing policing of urban communities of color escalated as an academic theory known as Broken Windows was embraced by police departments, including those in New York City, Albuquerque, New Mexico and Newark, New Jersey. Broken Windows asserts that signs of disorder and vandalism in a neighborhood lead to more serious criminal activity. The theory gave police a reason to crack down on misdemeanors from loitering to public drunkenness, and led to NYC’s infamous “stop and frisk” policy where cops detain, question and search civilians on the street for contraband. Despite little real evidence that these low-level offenses led to serious crime, a generation of cops were weaned on the heavy-handed practice. The police officer who put Eric Garner in a deadly chokehold in 2014 had been ordered to arrest him because he was selling loose cigarettes, and George Floyd’s fatal encounter with police was triggered by a report that he had tried to use a counterfeit $20 bill.
Even the language of these policies plays a role in the militarization of police, according to a 2007 study. Metaphors like “wars” on drugs and crime “shape discursive practices, clarify values and understanding, and guide problem-solving processes,” writes Peter Kraska, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University’s School of Justice Studies. Put simply, military rhetoric can result in warlike behavior.
It’s perhaps no surprise then that the Los Angeles Unified School District and its school police officers were supplied with three grenade launchers, 61 automatic military rifles, and a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected armored vehicle, according to a Los Angeles Times report in 2014. After a public backlash, the Los Angeles school police returned grenade launchers, but it kept the guns and the armored truck.
Proponents of the movement to defund police departments would like to see money redirected to community services like schools, housing, social services, and health programs. They argue that properly funding those programs could mitigate the underlying causes of crime and therefore reduce the need for policing as we know it today. “Cut the number of police in half and cut their budget in half,” writes activist Mariame Kaba in a recent New York Times op-ed. “Fewer police officers equals fewer opportunities for them to brutalize and kill people.”
In 1994 the Clinton administration’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) took a build—rather than cut—approach, awarding federal grants for hiring 100,000 new officers, buying new equipment, and testing new strategies to ramp up the police presence in American communities. Over the next 7 years, the COPS program spent $7.6 billion for what amounted to just a 2.5% drop in violent crime, according to the Government Accountability Office. Funding for the original COPS grants petered out around 2000, but President Obama would later reup the program after promising to fully fund the grants again during his 2008 campaign. Today, the COPs grant program amounts to nothing more than business as usual for most police departments, only with the benefit of federal funding.
The only time in recent history police departments saw significant layoffs was during the Great Recession, when as many as 15,000 officer positions were lost as a result of the downturn. “Most people predicted Armageddon,” Weiss says, “but it didn’t happen…life went on.”
Armageddon is what some imagine today when they hear demands to defund the police, but some of the proposals may actually make police operations more efficient. As funding for social safety net programs have decreased over the years, police officers have been left with additional burdens they are ill-equipped to handle. They’re responding to calls involving the homeless, people with mental illness and drug addictions. The average police department spends 168 hours training new recruits on firearms, self-defense, and use of force tactics, according to a 2013 Justice Department report. It spends just nine hours on conflict management and mediation.
A proposal under review by the Los Angeles City Council would use unarmed specialists to respond to calls about homeless people and mental health and substance abuse issues. The Minneapolis City Council voted to disband the police entirely and create a new public safety system that replace some police functions with community ones. In Dallas, officers respond to mental health calls in some areas with a paramedic and a behavioral health specialist. The local hospital noted a nearly 10% decline in its psychiatric emergency department volumes from zip codes served by the program after it launched in 2018.
Some police responsibility could even be offloaded to the private sector. In 2004, the city of Milwaukee shifted much of the responsibility of covering burglar alarms from the police to private security companies. Officers went from responding to 30,000 alarms per year, 97% of them false, to just 800 alarms per year.
Shifting these responsibilities away from police and into the hands of civilian professionals will make cutting law enforcement budgets easier. But in the end, even if activists fail in their efforts to restructure policing, law enforcement budgets still aren’t safe from cuts. Thanks to Covid-19, state budgets are headed for a loss of $615 billion over the next three years, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. That’s not to mention the hit that local and municipal governments will take, especially since they rely so heavily on state governments for funding.
The average police department spends 168 hours training new recruits on firearms, self-defense, and use of force tactics. It spends just nine hours on conflict management and mediation.
For now, the Trump administration isn’t keen on providing economic assistance to struggling municipalities. As the Senate and House turn their attention to two competing pieces of police reform legislation, discussions over stimulus funding for states and local governments are also heating up.
And while Trump himself has said there will be no defunding of police, his refusal thus far to help state and local governments might actually force the cuts. Already, Baltimore officials have warned the city’s union leaders (including police) that pay cuts, furloughs, and layoffs could be around the corner thanks to the pandemic. As Tax Policy Center senior fellow, Howard Gleckman, puts it, “The quickest way to slash local police budgets is to block federal assistance to state and local governments.”