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The Misunderstood Math of Defunding the Police

There isn't enough money there to significantly redress urban inequalities. The best way forward is to rethink law enforcement budgets for better policing and to de-fang unions that shield bad cops.

Protesters calling to defund the Chicago Police Department and to abolish ICE clash with police on Aug. 15, 2020. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)
Across America this summer, protestors have marched to decry police brutality and racial injustice. One of the most prominent slogans has been "defund the police." Advocates of defunding have argued that the money would be better spent on community services and socioeconomic justice. This mantra immediately drew backlash from politicians on the right, asserting that law and order would suffer, and the slogan likely agitated some of the militia maniacs. However understandable the pent-up frustrations, America needs to find better solutions.

Would defunding actually work? For perspective, state and local governments spend about 4 percent of their budgets on police and local law enforcement. Nationwide, that works out to about $30 per month per capita. That is less than one-fifth of what is spent directly at the state and local level on "public welfare" expenditures, mostly direct payments to families and health-care providers. And it amounts to only a tenth of the spending on what I'll call redistributional social services, categorized more broadly to include functions that would bootstrap minority communities such as public education and health services used by lower-income households. Importantly, police budgets are local-government budgets, not part of state budgets where social services funding is largely provided. Even if a police department's spending were slashed in half — extreme by any measure — the additional incremental local funding thus made available for social services and income redistribution would increase current levels almost imperceptibly. Defunding simply wouldn't move the needle.

The point here, for those who naively believe that there is a lavish municipal money pot for cops that can simply be spread among local citizens to level the economic playing field, is that the budget math doesn't work. Despite experiments underway or planned in some cities to provide income support for limited numbers of residents, the reality is that income redistribution is far beyond the fiscal capacity of local governments.

What about the states? In the middle of a pandemic with shrunken income- and sales-tax revenues, they are especially hard-pressed to come up with more funding to address income inequality and socioeconomic injustice. That would have to be the job of the next Congress, so next week's election will likely decide whether a decisive majority of voters are inclined to address those issues in 2021. But unless it's a landslide blue-wave election, I wouldn't hold my breath for major new federal income redistribution programs on top of center stage, big ticket health-care reforms that would be more widely popular.

That brings us back to what can be done locally, given that defunding flunks the fiscal practicality test. A better strategy for local activists would be to clamor instead for "re-budgeting" the police functions. Most citizens are likely to be supportive of current levels of spending for law enforcement; they just want to see the money spent more effectively. I don't pretend to be an expert on what works and doesn't work in the specialized world of police training and staffing, or the best policies for community outreach and residence requirements, but surely the prioritization of how money for public safety is spent can make a genuine difference in how law enforcement is conducted on the streets.

Most mayors and police chiefs, notwithstanding a few hardcore holdouts, are keen to implement constructive reforms. Budget staff within police departments and municipal finance offices should be educating themselves on how they too can make a difference with strategic budgeting. Nothing would please me more than to see mayors' groups, municipal leagues, and the city/county managers and finance officers' associations devote some time and resources to build training curricula and best practices to support local efforts to prioritize expenditures in ways that produce concrete progress toward de-escalating urban tensions. The Government Finance Officers Association has already provided a useful starting point for these efforts with an insightful article, titled "The Defunding Debate," in its latest issue of Government Finance Review.

That's the budgetary landscape. Another measure that could have a profound impact on the behavior of bad cops is to de-unionize the rotten apples. This idea is much more controversial and requires a paradigm shift by both conservatives and liberals, the labor movement, and law-and-order advocates. A focused discussion of police de-unionization turns traditional partisan postures on organized labor upside down.

I present the issue here, as sand in the oyster to stimulate a pearl, in order to spark a serious dialogue: In urban America, more than just a few police unions unduly control their cops' culture and disturbingly resist the legitimate local processes of discipline. Too many mayors and prosecutors have hit a brick wall when dealing with their police unions, some of which stand on the wrong side of racial justice in their communities. Whether it is the proper role of a municipality or the state, public officials must find a way to neuter those rotten-apple unions' defense of police brutality.

At the local level, the best elected officials can hope to accomplish is to renegotiate contracts that provide union protection to bad actors. Without disputing the unions' right to collectively bargain on pay and other bread-and-butter issues, the labor agreements need to be rewritten so that disciplinary actions and independent investigations can proceed without union obstruction. Contracts with collective pay cuts for repeated incidents would send a strong message internally, to leverage peer pressure from the good cops. But to be equitable, penalty provisions should be accompanied by state or federal grants to provide extra compensation or good-cop incentives for front-line urban police, who are underpaid for the hazards, confrontations and hassles that many endure daily.

At the state level, Democrats who traditionally favor public-employee unions in general must rethink union rights in the law enforcement world. Besides targeted budgetary measures, legislatures need to find a way to de-unionize, de-certify, de-fang or at least neutralize the union in a locality where police power has clearly been abused on its citizens. By state law, bad cops disqualified through due process should lose taxpayer-funded pension payouts.

Policymakers and advisers with more legislative expertise and political savvy than mine can better craft the best way to deter police unions that shield bad cops. Clearly this is easier said than done, and the topic is a scorching hot potato going into next week's elections, but thereafter, it will be time for elected officials in problematic states and localities to stop ducking the issue.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

Girard Miller is the finance columnist for Governing. He can be reached at
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