Why Are U.S. Police Budgets So High?
The U.S. spends over $100 billion on policing per year. Where does that money go?
BY: TOM GEORGE
A reckoning is happening.
As protests take place around the world in reaction to racism and police brutality, many have started to question the current system of policing and its role in our lives, with calls to defund and dismember departments, take away police powers, and remove police presence from schools, festivals and Pride events.
Though calls to defund police departments have been made for years now—with the term ‘defund’ being used to suggest budget cuts—and have been mostly ignored, it seems as though in the wake of George Floyd’s death, they’re starting to bear some fruit. Last week, L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti announced he was scrapping the planned budget increases for the LAPD that would have given them a whopping $1.189 billion spend—although this was after protests congregated outside his home.
In Minneapolis, the home of George Floyd himself and the city that has long been accused of racism within its police ranks, the city has promised change, with council members looking to dismantle the police force and create a new system entirely. Meanwhile, leading political voices such as AOC have called for cuts to the NYPDs massive $6 billion budget, with Mayor de Blasio vowing to make changes; while California senator Kamala Harris, speaking on The View, wouldn’t go as far as saying defunding, but definitely supported “reimagining” public safety.
U.S. states offer huge amounts of their budget to their police forces. The U.S. collectively spends $100 billion a year on policing and $80 billion on incarceration. Even amid a pandemic when areas such as education, healthcare, construction, transport and tourism have seen major cuts to their finances, leaders have been hesitant to make any changes to policing budgets, with many going untouched and some even increasing. So what is so key about state policing that means it can’t be cut? Where is money being spent?
In truth, the full scope of police department spendings is fairly unknown and hard to find let alone decipher. In all states the majority of the police budget is spent on the salaries of officers, which is on average $67.6k per year—around $15k per year more than the average across all occupations. In other countries police officers earn a lot less, although most are greatly higher than their national averages. UK police officers earn about £42.4k per year ($53k) and French police officers earn around €46.3k per year ($52.4k).
Equipment is also expensive, but while health care workers across the U.S. are struggling to get the PPE they so desperately need, this past week we’ve seen police forces out in riot gear to face protesters. Made up of a helmet, suit, gloves and a shield, one police officer’s riot gear can come to $496.01 on average across all states (FYI with PPE costing around $15.33 per person, 31 health care workers could be fitted with the cost of one riot suit). Body cameras are also expensive; the Obama administration put aside $263 million in 2014 for their implementation and further officer training, but despite such large expenditure their non-mandatory status mean many police officers keep them turned off anyway, making them virtually redundant, potentially wasteful.
To make matters even more shocking, taxpayer money is also spent on defending police brutality itself. In a country that has much higher rates of police brutality than its peers, this can become rather expensive—In the U.K., 55 people were shot and killed by police over 24 years; more than this were killed within 24 days of 2015 in the U.S. Around $230 million is spent per year on NYPD misconduct lawsuits alone, while in 2018 Chicago’s police department spent $113 million on settlements and legal fees to families of those killed or harmed by police. In 2019, well before the death of George Floyd by their officer, the Minneapolis police department made a payout of $20 million for the killing of Justine Ruszczyk, an Australian-American woman who was shot after reporting a potential assault behind her home (In comparison, the family of Terrance Franklin, who in 2013 was chased, shot and killed in the same city, received $795,000 in February of this year).
Are these huge budgets necessary? Crime rates have actually been falling in the U.S., and although there has never been a large-scale example of dismantling police forces, examples in Georgia as well as NY police boycotts in 2014 suggest that a lower police presence actually sees a lower level of crime. Higher police presences, such as New York’s aggressive ‘Stop and Frisk’ policy, might actually increase tensions between civilians and law enforcement.
In his book The End of Policing, Alex S. Vitale points out how crucial it is to “redirect resources from policing, courts and jails to community centers and youth jobs.” He notes how in 2014 the LA Youth Justice Coalition drafted a plan that redirected just 1% of the LA policing budgets to community social programs for youth which would generate over $100 million per year, however nothing was put in place. Compared to peer countries the U.S. spends very little on social programs—only 18.7% of its general budget (France spends 31.2%, Germany 25.1%) and a staggering 0.6% on benefits for family and children (the UK and Sweden spend 3.5%).
What’s more, Vitale believes that departments are having to over-police in order to justify their sizes and budgets. He finds this especially visible in border patrol, which, in the wake of a decline in border crossers, has focused its efforts on seizing drugs—even though 80% of its arrests are of U.S. citizens. Yet, despite the lowering crime rates and forced validations of costs, police departments continue to see budget increases year after year.
With 34% of black trans people in the U.S. living in extreme poverty, lowering funds for the police and repurposing those budgets towards social programs that support struggling communities is one viable course of action. Ending homelessness only needs one fifth of the budget U.S. policing gets, and ending poverty for those with families and children can be done with 70%. Perhaps city councillors in Minneapolis are right: the only way forward is to dismantle state policing programs completely and build up a new system instead. The world is facing a massive evolution and all eyes are on Minneapolis to see if a community public safety model could work. The protesters on the street demand us to at least try.