Cities can reform the police with ideas for more effective budgets

Cities can reform the police with ideas for more effective budgets
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Is it possible to defund the police? In the aftermath of the tragic killing of George Floyd, along with other incidents 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 repair. It could also be applied directly to one bad officer who needs to be fired, rather than forgiven, after egregious or repeated offenses.

But the spike in national crime this summer underscores the other side of this debate. If police are constrained and lack resources for their jobs, the historic 50 percent reduction in violent crime over the last generation can be reversed. Unfortunate outcomes, like the resignation of Carmen Best, a talented woman who ran the Seattle Police Department until she resigned after a budget battle with the city council, can also occur.

It is much more likely that the words are presumably intended as dramatic shorthand for a more modest ambition to curb our dependence on police to carry out public activities much better handled by the workers in other industries. In fact, as the Wall Street Journal has reported, police budgets across the United States have gone up by an average of about 25 percent more than other municipal functions with the modern era.


There are no doubt inefficiencies that could save funds if fixed. But most of the increase in police budgets is from giving officers jobs they did not have before, and that other parts of government sometimes have trouble providing, like assisting those with mental health issues, offering security in homeless shelters, preventing violence in schools, teaching teenagers about drug and gang activities, preventing illegal dumping across public lands, and keeping parks safe. It is rare to have a police chief who, when asked by the mayor or other administrator to handle one of these issues, thinks it is possible to say, “No thank you. It is not our job.”

But maybe they should say that. The debate to defund the police can play constructive roles in our society if it is viewed as a conversation about the missions and budgets for the many police forces. Look at the budget and payroll of one local government as a way to frame choices. New York City has around 50,000 employees with the New York Police Department, with 36,000 uniformed individuals and 17,000 civilian workers who constitute a decent fraction of the New York City budget and payroll.

The categories of public activities that most overlap with what the patrol officers and other police end up handling, less as a matter of choice than necessity, are with social services and mental health assistance. Some of these officers certainly lack resources in New York City and, no doubt, in other places in the country. Studies have suggested the residents in New York City only provide about half as many such specialists as the national average, relative to the sizes of those populations they serve. Raising the local employment levels to more of the national levels might, depending on the exact strategy, add 2,000 to 6,000 more specialists.

For the sake of illustration, if similar shortfalls existed in the social services arena, New York City might wish to add 10,000 to 20,000 more specialists in those roles as well. Such capacity could lead to a meaningful easing for the various burdens on the police force. However, because an officer who spent some of his or her time on these activities previously also had other responsibilities, there would hardly be a one to one reduction in demands on the police even after an augmentation of other services.

Each city will have to do careful calculations before cutting funds. But the numbers cited here, in how large police budgets have grown, and in how many of the tasks might be provided much better by specialists, indicate that reasonable reductions can be made from 5 percent to 20 percent in police forces and budgets. But as in medicine, those who want to reduce police forces and redefine missions have to first do no harm, then do the real calculations before they take out the knife on budgets.

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.”