In my previous post, I discussed the financial feasibility of defunding NYPD. Since I published that piece, I’ve read a bunch of articles suggesting changes to policing. There’s been a veritable media storm of suggestions about allocation of funds within police budgets. Some suggest “unbundling” of police. Others want to more funds to reconfigure training for officers to emphasize de-escalation (as opposed to making arrests) in conflict situations. The problem with these suggestions is that they tend to treat social problems as a quick-fix solution that can be solved merely by moving funds around.
Let’s take the example of homelessness. In New York City, which has the country’s largest homeless population, the budget to tackle homelessness has more than doubled to $3.2 billion between 2014 and 2019. That budget is distributed among six agencies and NYPD is one of them. The biggest line item for dealing with homelessness, however, does not come from officer salaries. Shelter costs comprised the biggest expense in 2019, jumping by more than 50% to $1.9 billion. Interestingly, the term “police officer” itself could refer to officers from a different agency within the context of homelessness. For example, a Guardian piece last year about the police cracking down on homeless people in the subway was actually about Metropolitan Transportation Agency (MTA) police. The agency approved a contentious four-year plan last year to add another 500 police officers over a four-year period.
San Francisco, another city with the same problem, plans to spend more than $100 million to “increase and support homeless service over the next two years.” The increased budgetary allocation may not help curb rising expenses for homeless shelters in the city. Housing subsidies accounted for two-thirds of budget expenses for the San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing in 2017 and 2018. Administrative expenses and salaries and non-profit disbursements are other big expenses. In all of this, the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) seems to be a bit player.
The Police Department’s role within the context of tackling homelessness is also not a very effective one. A focus on data in such initiatives means that police officers move through cases at a rapid speed, instead of handling them on an individual basis. Here’s an excerpt from an interview with a police officer working the homeless beat in Utah: “The police are just as guilty as homeless service providers of confusing inputs and activity with outcomes and performance. The police love to quantify activity, usually as a measure of performance…If I’m a police officer making loads of contacts (but not actually solving anything), then I’m a superstar.
However, if I spend all day working with one client, resolving their challenges, then it is easy to view me as less-than-effective…Officers in many busy agencies, such as mine, may handle 20-30 calls for service in a shift. The mindset is that calls for service are holding, and we need to clear this call to get to the next one. You cannot get into problem-solving mode if you are always in crisis-response mode. Also slowing down to the molasses-like pace of homeless bureaucracy is a giant leap for cops used to quantity.” Unbundling, defunding, taking away funding from the police…these measures may go part of the way in solving homelessness. But they are unlikely to prove long-term or effective solutions to policing.