It seemed like a turning point. In May, a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, sparking protests against racism across the country and an unrelenting demand from protesters in city after city: Defund the police.
But after months of demonstrations, that rallying cry hasn’t translated into reality. While a few major cities like New York and Los Angeles have made large, high profile cuts, more than half actually increased spending or kept it unchanged as a percentage of their discretionary spending, based on a Bloomberg CityLab analysis of 34 of the largest 50 U.S. cities that have finalized 2021 budgets. As a group, the difference between police spending as a share of the general funds fell less than 1% from last year. The city council in Indianapolis is poised to vote on an increase to its police budget in the coming weeks.
New York City made the largest cut to police spending in dollar terms. The reduction came as NYC slashed its total budget as well.
Austin made the most substantial reduction to general fund police spending in percentage terms even as the general fund budget was unchanged.
The reasons for such moves vary by city and state. For some, like Charlotte, North Carolina, residents’ calls to reduce police spending came too late in the budget process to have any impact on the final outcome, and for others, like San Antonio, increases were inevitable because of prior union negotiations. The coronavirus pandemic is also pressuring city councils to scale back plans for all types of infrastructure and services—including police departments—to help make up for an anticipated plunge in tax revenue next year.
“We have not defunded anything in this moment,” said Oluchi Omeoga, an organizer with Minneapolis’s Black Visions Collective, which is working to reimagine policing in the city. “As much as we’ve said that we’ve defunded, as much as there has been a national movement to defund, the police have the same budget that they had three months ago.”
The negligible changes across many U.S. cities run counter to a narrative being pushed by President Donald Trump, who has denounced places including Chicago, Seattle and New York as lawless and beset by violent protesters. He is attempting to paint the 2020 election as a referendum on law and order, by falsely stating his opponent Joe Biden wants to get rid of police. Biden said in August that more investment is needed to properly reform police departments.
Police budgets, along with total spending, have been on an upward trajectory for the last decade. A year passes, the budget goes up. Take Boston, which spent $315.8 million on police in 2012, according to an Urban Institute analysis. In 2017, the city’s general fund spending on police increased to $375.5 million, and by fiscal 2020, the city was spending $414.3 million. This year marks a shift, however: Boston will spend $404.2 million in fiscal 2021.