Can We “Defund” the Police?

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death by a police officer in Minneapolis, “Defund the Police” has become a rallying cry for protestors throughout the country and abroad. By tackling the problem’s root cause, that is by sharply cutting the supply of government money to police departments in America, activists contend that police brutality can be eliminated.

Their argument is simple. More funding leads to hiring of more police officers. To justify salaries for new officers, the department makes arrests to show increased crime in a municipality. With a history of being marginalized and a higher rate of unemployment and incarceration, black persons and people of color make easy targets as compared to other communities. Curtailing funding will result in fewer (or, in some extreme arguments, no) patrol officers and less cases of brutality and crime. This circular chain of reasoning establishes a direct and causal relationship between funding for police departments and police brutality.

There is some truth to this reasoning. But it lacks clarity. For example, there is confusion about the exact nature of defunding. Buzzwords have proliferated in attempts to define the term. For some, it involves a reimagining of the role of a law enforcement agency. Others want “structural reform”. Still others are more forthright and want to “disband” the department.   

But police departments, especially in big cities, have been reimagining their role for some time now. For example, they are more actively involved with social service departments and have been recruiting civilians in increasing numbers to their force. Line item expenses in their budgets are a reflection of these transformations. Even the Minneapolis Police Department, where the current chain of events started, proposed a 2.8% increase in its budget this year to, among other things, “civilianize” its workforce by converting eight positions currently filled by sworn officers to civilian staff, providing mental health co-responder programs, and piloting a “Fix it, Not Ticket” program, wherein officers issue vouchers, instead of citations that result in fines, for traffic violations and broken tail lights.

In other words, from a purely financial perspective, the process to “defund” police departments and transform their operations has been underway for several years now.

Tracking Expenses for NYPD

Just like other parts of the economy, the number of police officers within the United States has surged and ebbed with time. After a sustained period of increase, the number of officers fell to its lowest point in 2013 but has been on increasing since.

Despite these fluctuations, however, the overall percentage share of police spending in local government budgets within the United States has remained fairly consistent at around four percent in the last 40 years. That figure has persisted even as actual police spending has increased from $42 billion to $115 billion in inflation-adjusted terms.

Within New York City, revenues have consistently risen over the last decade allowing the mayor’s office to allocate increasing amounts of money to various departments. Budget expenses in the country’s biggest police department have jumped by approximately 27% in the last ten years. The department’s costs have swollen even as criminal activities in the city have declined. For example, the number of reported felonies fell by 9 percent in the last decade while misdemeanor offenses slumped by roughly 35% during the same time period.

Why is the city spending more to fight less crime?

Fewer Officers, More Pay

The biggest line item in the police department’s budget is personal services or the amount it spends on services and wages for officers. It accounts for more than 90 percent of the NYPD’s expenses and has steadily climbed upwards after the 2008 financial recession. In his budget that year, Mayor Bloomberg estimated a spend of $3.5 billion on salaries and wages for the police department. NYPD Commissioner Dermot F. Shea envisaged a $5.1 billion spending on the same line item in 2019. But the total number of officers within the force has not kept pace with those increases; in fact, there were 195 fewer full-time officers in 2019 as compared to 2008.

Meanwhile, officer salaries and benefits have multiplied. The starting salary for sworn officers in 2008 was $25,100. After five-and-a-half years, they could expect a pay of $59,585. Now an officer begins earnings at $42,500 and reaches an income of $85,292 after five-and-a-half years.

Typically, salary increases mirror conditions and inflation rates in the broader economy. However, inflation has been all over the place in the last ten years, meaning that the salary rise is a function of other factors.

More Rules, Technology, and Civilians

A widely-cited 2010 report on making policing affordable at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government attributed salary increases for officers working in the police department in Mesa, Ariz., to the increasingly complex nature of police work. That work has become even more knotty over time as racial tensions have reignited and technology, such as body-worn cameras, has made inroads into the department.

States have passed regulations and rules to supervise and prescribe police conduct to earn community trust. Theoretically, at least, an average officer has to contend with a phalanx of new laws while handing cases that have the potential to turn dangerous. Vera Institute, a nonprofit working to reduce the numbers of incarcerated, found that 34 states and the District of Columbia had incorporated 79 changes to policing laws between 2015 and 2017 alone. From 2012 to 2015, only 20 changes occurred to policing laws.

The officer also has to deal with new technology. The NYPD is considered the most tech savvy police department in the country and has introduced many new initiatives. The biggest of these is the establishment of a Real Time Crime Center that pulls information from multiple databases – Federal, State, and City – in order to provide a simplified web interface. The department also uses CompStat to provide crime statistics. In addition, it uses an assortment of surveillance tech, such as drones, X-ray vans, and state-of-the-art tech like ShotSpotter to monitor and detect crime.

Ascertaining NYPD’s actual tech spending is difficult because those costs are distributed throughout various departments. However, money set aside for training, which is required to familiarize new and existing officers with new systems and laws, provides an indication of the NYPD’s priorities. Between 2014 to 2019, NYPD training budgets increased by 25 percent.

More Civilians and Social Services

The introduction of new policies and technology isn’t the most striking thing about NYPD budgets in the last decade, however. The influx of civilians into the department is. While the figure for sworn officers has remained fairly constant, the number of civilians employed in the police department has multiplied. Between 2007 and 2008, the number of civilian hires jumped by almost 50% to 15,000.

They are employed in a variety of roles for multiple initiatives in the police force. For example, the city has ramped up its use of analysts, who work with police officers to derive crime patterns across precincts and boroughs. Traffic Enforcement Agents (TEAs) make sure that vehicles follow rules.

School Safety Agents (SSAs) are hired to ensure safety of children within schools. They account for the biggest program area jump on the NYPD’s budgetary allocations in recent times and the budget for their salaries skyrocketed by a whopping 633% between 2017 and 2019 as the department hired more SSAs, possibly to avoid school shootings that swept through much of the country. While the effectiveness of SSAs in schools has been questioned, there have been no moves to cut back on their numbers. The recent closure of schools due to COVID-19 prompted Mayor de Blasio’s administration to redeploy 800 SSAs to hand out masks in subways.

Can We Defund NYPD?  

If the argument for “defunding” police is a plea for fewer sworn officers because they commit brutality, then the process has already been underway for the last ten years in the NYPD. The relatively constant number of officers within the department during this time period contrasts with a broadening of its reach without a substantial increase in the ranks of uniformed officers.

Civilian officers are easier on its budget and possess better communication skills. They also provide valuable support to sworn officers. Uniformed officers can be deployed on rotation duty instead of being pressed into service at multiple venues, their expenses contributing to overtime budget increases.

The Ten-Year Capital Strategy unveiled by the city council last year also envisages a declining pace of capital investments by the NYPD. The department has a capital investment spend of $1.72 billion, representing approximately 1.5% of the city’s total spending during the next decade. The Department of Education is the biggest beneficiary in that strategy with a spend of $24.1 billion.

Much is being made of a $1 billion proposed cut in the NYPD budget announced recently. But the city council is vacillating on the timeframe and details of that cut. About the only details regarding the spending have emerged, so far, in a proposal from City Comptroller Scott Stringer. He has proposed a  $1.1 billion cut in city funding for NYPD over a period of four years. That figure amounts to $265 million annually. Stringer has also identified four key areas for reduction in the NYPD budget.

But those areas cover familiar ground or might adversely impact the city’s social service activities. For example, he has asked for a five percent reduction in the budgeted amount for officer overtime to raise $26 million. This is not a new idea. The 2021 budget presented by Commissioner Shea has a 4.5% reduction for uniformed officer overtime from FY2020 figures. In the last three years, overtime expenses have declined by 12 percent, yielding a reduction rate of four percent annually, a figure that is not substantially far from Stringer’s target ask. (Paradoxically enough, salaries for current protest duties for officers comes from the budget for overtime expenses, meaning protestors have unwittingly contributed to the department’s budget during a time when public activities and parades are cancelled).

Stringer has also asked for a hiring freeze of uniformed officers. In combination with an assumed attrition rate of 3 percent, the move will result in savings of $112 million. But a hiring freeze will mostly affect the department’s work in social services. NYPD has budgeted for 65 new officers in its force this year. Fifty-nine of those officers are for the department’s Homeless Outreach Services that works with the Department of Homelessness to transport homeless persons to a shelter.

Finally, Stringer also envisions a cut of four percent in Other Than Personal Services (OTPS) expenses to raise $17 million. “This could be achieved through reductions in the NYPD’s spending on computer services and other service contracts, as well as a lengthening of the replacement cycle for NYPD vehicles, among other possible actions,” he writes. Again, the budget’s current version already has provisions for reducing the OTPS budget by $8.4 million driven in part due to “lower expenditures on property and equipment.” 

This is not to suggest that Stringer’s suggestions are ill-advised or that the protests were futile. The latter helped catalyze a conversation about the role of police in American society. But defunding the police department, with all its accompanying implications, may be a foolhardy exercise.

But What About Camden?

The results of community policing in Camden, a New Jersey city that is often held up as an example which “dismantled” its police force, are mixed. The size of the county force has doubled with a $3 million ambassadors program launched in 2014, adding to its overall costs. However, the average salary of police officers has declined from 2010 levels. In 2016, the median pay for a Camden county officer was $50,335, down $29,321 from the median pay in 2010. The county has also made substantial investments in technology, such as body cameras, sensors, and devices to detect gunfire. (I was unable to determine actual costs for the enlarged department because the Camden county budget upload is a mess).

Budgetary changes are often tools to effect changes within the police force. But Camden’s police force remains largely white in a city with a ninety percent minority population. These officers are dissatisfied with their duties and often migrate to neighboring counties for more fulfilling jobs. The city has also increased the number of misdemeanor arrests for petty crime even as overall felony figures have dropped.

In the end, defunding or dismantling of police departments may only make them bigger and more powerful.

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