Is it possible to defund the police? In the aftermath of the tragic killing of George Floyd on May 25, and preceding as well as ensuing tragedies ending in the deaths of African Americans at the hands of police in this country, that phrase has become a clarion call across the land. In extreme cases, it might have to be taken literally, if an entire police force is corrupt or incompetent beyond redress. It could also be applied directly to a bad officer who should be fired, rather than forgiven, after egregious or repeated offenses.
Alas, the spike in national crime this summer underscores the flip side of this debate: if police are constrained, or lack resources, in their jobs, the nation’s historic 50 percent reduction in violent crime over the last generation can easily be reversed. Regrettable outcomes like the resignation of Carmen Best, a talented African American woman who ran Seattle’s police force until she resigned this month due to a major budgetary standoff with the city council, can occur as well.
Much more likely in today’s America, though, the words are presumably intended as dramatic shorthand for a more modest ambition: reducing America’s dependence on police to carry out public activities that are much better handled by other professions. In fact, as the Wall Street Journal has just reported, police budgets across the United States have gone up about 25 percent more, on average, than other municipal functions in the modern era.
Without a doubt, there are inefficiencies within many police budgets that could save money if corrected. But most of the recent growth in police budgets in the United States results from giving the police jobs they did not have before, and that other parts of government have sometimes had trouble providing themselves: assisting mentally ill in times of crisis, ensuring security in homeless shelters, preventing violence in schools, teaching teenagers about drug and gang awareness, preventing illegal dumping on public lands, keeping parks safe and secure. It is a rare police chief who, when challenged by his or her boss, a mayor or other administrator, to help solve one of these problems, will feel that it is possible to say “no thank you, that’s not our job.”
But maybe they should. Today’s “defund the police” debate can play a constructive role in our society if it is reinterpreted as a conversation over appropriate roles, missions, and therefore budgets, for the nation’s many police forces. Look at New York City’s budget, and payroll, as a way to frame the choices we may have, not only in the nation’s largest city but in many other municipalities in the country as well. New York City has just over 50,000 employees of the NYPD, with 36,000 uniformed individuals and 17,000 civilians. They constitute about a sixth of the city governmental total, and perhaps an eighth of the city budget.
The categories of activity that most overlap with what patrol officers and other police wind up doing, less as a matter of choice than necessity, are in social services and mental health. Some of these indeed lack resources in New York and, no doubt, elsewhere in the United States.
Here’s one way to think about it, at least for New York. Studies like a 2006 Vision for the City report suggest that New Yorkers, at both city and state levels, only provide about half as many such specialists as the national average, relative to the sizes of the populations they serve. Bringing up employment levels to more typical national levels therefore might, depending on the exact approach taken, add 2,000 to 6,000 more specialists.
For sake of illustration, if similar shortfalls existed in the children’s, family, and social arenas, New York City might wish to add say 10,000 to 20,000 personnel in those specialties as well. Such capacity could lead to a meaningful easing of the various burdens on the police force. But because an officer who spent some of his or her time on these tasks previously also had other responsibilities, there would hardly be a one-to-one reduction in demands on the police even after such augmentation of other services.
Each city will have to do careful calculations itself, before cutting back on police funding. But the rough numbers cited above, in how large police budgets have grown nationally, in how many of their tasks might be provided more effectively by others, suggest that reasonable reductions can be in the range of perhaps 5 percent to 20 percent in police forces and therefore police budgets. But just as in medicine, the Hippocratic Oath should apply as lawmakers seek to streamline police roles and redefine roles and missions: first, do no harm. Then do the detailed calculations before pulling out the budgetary knife.
John Donohue is a fellow at Rutgers University Miller Center of Community Protection and Resilience and retired as chief of strategic initiatives for the New York Police Department. Michael O’Hanlon is a fellow at the Brookings Institution based in Washington and the author of “Securing Global Cities.”