The murder of George Floyd by police officers in the United States sparked waves of Black Lives Matter protests across the country and around the world. Even in the face of a pandemic and sometimes violent government responses, marchers filled the streets calling for racial justice and an end to police abuses.
Rising out of the movement came a call, one with a specific budget emphasis: Defund the Police.
Though by no means new, defunding the police has, in the last few months, gone from a radical idea to actual policy in a few large cities in the United States. At its core, it is a call to reprioritize how public resources are used to ensure public safety by reducing the funding of police and redistributing that money to other public services, such as mental health care and housing. The goal is to redirect resources away from the police and towards these other services that can better address community needs.
A crucial part of understanding what it would mean to “defund the police” is understanding police budgets. If the goal is to change the priorities of the police – and their role in the community — budget decisions are pre-cursors to any transformation. This type of budget work can be difficult, but – as examples around the world have shown – it is possible. And budget analysis and advocacy is a necessary step in reforming policing and instituting needed change.
Activists interested in engaging on police budgets will encounter a set of challenges, some of which are unique.
First, it is important to recognize that policing is but one component to a broader public safety and justice system. Other institutions – such as jails and public prosecutors and defenders – will have their own funding separate from the police. Effective reform that reduces police abuses and racial inequities in the justice system will inevitably have to engage with these institutions.
Next, who delivers policing varies greatly between countries, and often even within a single country. Overlapping jurisdictions and levels of government can police the same community, which makes tracking funding more complex than simply finding one line item in one budget. And in some countries, policing is delivered by military units or militarized police departments. Military spending is generally less transparent than other sectors, but such spending can be tracked – one example is the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s work on military expenditure in Latin America and Africa, which intersects with police budgets.
Additionally, both the benefits and costs of policing policies are poorly understood. Though there has been some work to improve this, notably by the Vera Institute, it can be difficult for both policy makers and activists to fully understand the relationship between spending and policing outcomes. If one knows the costs and benefits of particular policing policies and their associated budget items, it will be easier to identify what funds should be cut and redirected.
Finally, working on police budgets potentially opens activists to personal risks. As part of a country’s overall security system, policing is often seen as off-limits. In these circumstances, activists will have to fight to access the information and may have to adapt their strategies to be effective. This type of work potentially places them as adversaries to an armed government institution.
Over-policed and under-policed
In practice, the problems with policing manifest in two ways: over-policing, which is harsh police enforcement of often non-violent crimes, and under-policing, where serious or violent crimes are ignored. It is possible for a community to suffer from both issues at once – for example, police may respond with a heavy hand to enforce selling items on the street without a license, but then ignore and fail to solve serious and violent crimes.
Much of the work that civil society organizations and activists have done on police budgets has involved examining the cost of policing, highlighting increases in funding particularly when compared to other social services. This connects primarily with over-policing, as police budgets often swell as they are tasked with responding to a host of social ills, including housing insecurity or drug addiction. In the most extreme cases of over-policing, some police forces have been used to extract revenue from poor and marginalized communities.
In the United States, the Vera Institute has created a dashboard that compiles FY 2020 data on police budgets in 72 of the largest cities. Similarly, the Center for Popular Democracy, Law for Black Lives, and the Black Youth Project 100 collaborated on a report published in 2017 that examined racial disparities and police budgets in 12 cities, and they recently updated the data for 2020. The Urban Institute has also compiled data on state and local funding of police and corrections in the United States, as has the Institute for Southern Studies on major southern American cities. Several organizations have done analysis and/or advocacy on specific police departments, such as the Vera Institute in New York City, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute in Washington, DC, and People’s Budget LA, a coalition of organizations led by Black Lives Matter Los Angeles.
Similar analysis has also been done around the world, notably by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, which has looked at Uganda, Kenya, and India. And IBP recently used the World Bank’s BOOST database to compare budgets and actual expenditures in 19 countries, finding that, on average, actual expenditures on police functions were overspent by 2.2 percent, while overall budgets were underspent by 10 percent.
As policing is but one component of a wider security and justice system, many of IBP’s partner organizations have taken a more holistic approach to examining police budgets. For example, the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability provided budget analysis for the India Justice Report 2019, which examined the entire justice system, including policing, in 25 states in India. Meanwhile, BudgIt annually produces easy-to-understand infographics of Nigeria’s security budget, which includes policing. And as part of their work on public security in Brazil, INESC conducted budget analysis of Pronasci, a federal policing and criminal justice reform program.
When it comes to under-policing, perhaps the best example of civil society budget advocacy comes out of South Africa.
An IBP partner, the Social Justice Coalition, led a coalition of organizations to advocate for the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry into policing in Khayelitsha, one of South Africa’s largest townships and home to a majority of Cape Town’s informal settlement residents. The Commission found significant problems in policing in Khayelitsha, notably that the police resources, including funding, were biased against poor black communities.
SJC and their partners took the Government to court over inequitable distribution of resources, particularly how many personnel were assigned to each precinct, and were successful, with the Equality Court returning a judgement in late 2018 that recognized that the allocation of police resources was fundamentally discriminatory against black communities. Work to fix under-policing in black communities in South Africa continues, particularly in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, with restrictions and their enforcement being applied inequitably across racial and economic lines.
A way forward
Defunding the police is fundamentally a budget question.
Activists that want to reform policing will inevitably have to address police budgets, and there is much work still to be done on this front. The allocations of the limited public resources found in the budget have a direct impact on the lives of people, particularly those living in poor and marginalized communities that are often most affected by police abuses.
Communities must be given a say in how public money is being spent by their government, including on policing. To reimagine policing, governments and communities should work together to reimagine how the budget is set.
Every day around the world activists are using public budgets to require more progressive policing and to reform justice systems. This work is transforming lives in many communities and has the potential to re-set spending priorities and their impact on marginalized communities for generations to come.