The brutal video of police murdering George Floyd has inspired unprecedented civil action and protests against police violence. Among the many signs and chants heard around the nation and the world are calls to defund the police.
Some advocate for a complete restructuring of public safety. Others want sharp reductions in police spending with corresponding increases in other public services that support communities harmed by police violence.
An examination of government finance data can inform—but in no way settle—larger debates around policing. Government spending on police is not merely a set of numbers but, rather, the culmination of a long history of policy choices, including many rooted in persistent structural racism.
And spending is far from the only policing issue affected by structural racism. It’s not even the only fiscal issue, as we saw with the excessive fines and forfeitures in Ferguson and increased purchasing of military equipment.
There are countless issues, such as punitive policing, that require reforms outside of budgeting.
But police spending reflects what communities pay in exchange for public safety—an exchange that does not keep all communities safe. At the least, spending data can help advocates and policymakers understand reforms’ fiscal opportunities and parameters.
How much is your community spending on police?
According to the US Census of Governments, state and local governments spent $115 billion on police in 2017 (the latest year for which comprehensive data are available).
Most of this spending (86 percent) was by local governments. States typically fund highway patrols, and local dollars support sheriffs' offices and police departments. Across the US, police spending accounted for roughly $1 of every $10 spent by counties, municipalities, and townships and $1 of every $100 spent by states.
Because localities overlap (PDF), it’s possible your community funds multiple local police budgets in addition to your state’s spending. (The federal government also transfers funds to state and locals for police, but it’s a very small share of overall spending.)
This makes discovering what your community spends on police very challenging.
Some advocates are sharing data showing localities spend close to half their budget on police. Others are promoting charts with police spending far outpacing other public services.
Neither claim is wrong, but both deserve more context.
Let’s look at Los Angeles’s city budget. Police spending accounted for roughly half of unrestricted revenue in the proposed fiscal year 2021 budget (PDF). But unrestricted funds were only half of the city’s total spending. The other (restricted) funds support a wide range of services, including transportation, water and electricity, and affordable housing.
Include those, and police spending is closer to a quarter of the budget. The US Census Bureau put the number at 23 percent in 2017—still the city’s largest expenditure.
But that number undersells what Los Angeles spent on police because the community funds both city and county police. In 2017, Los Angeles city spent $2.2 billion on police and Los Angeles county spent $2.0 billion. Police spending as a share of the county’s budget was 9 percent, lower than the city’s share simply because the county’s budget is larger (including large shares for Medicaid and hospitals).
Los Angeles city did not spend and Los Angeles county spent relatively little on public education, though. Instead, most of that spending came from independent school districts. If you include that and the spending of all other local governments (including special districts), the police share is lower. Across California, police spending was 6 percent of all local government spending in 2017 (roughly the national average).
This illustrates how a key challenge in translating police spending data is merely our system of governance. In short, different governments deliver different services—and it varies by state.
Las Vegas spent less than 2 percent of its budget on the police in 2017, but Clark County spent 15 percent. In contrast, police spending was roughly 2 percent of the Cook County, Illinois, budget in 2017 but nearly 20 percent of the Chicago city budget.
New York City spent $5.7 billion on police in 2017. But that was just 6 percent of its budget because New York City public school spending was included in the city budget—and accounted for a third of the city’s spending.
The average spending on police for jurisdictions with more than one million people was 9.7 percent in 2017. The average for jurisdictions with fewer than 50,000 people was 16.7 percent. Again, this variation is driven in large part by what particular services jurisdictions deliver (and do not deliver).
If you’re looking to compare police spending to all other public services, using combined state and local spending is helpful because it groups all of these local governments together. The number is not better than looking at just localities or just municipalities. But it provides a full accounting of what state and local governments provide in the US.
Overall, police spending was 4 percent of state and local direct general expenditures in 2017. (This data included federal transfers; if we look at just own-source funds, police spending was 5 percent of state and local expenditures.)
This is far less than what state and local governments spent on public welfare (mostly Medicaid in the Census accounting) and K–12 education, but more than many other services, including housing and community development (and others not listed on the chart). And although police spending is far less than the sum of public welfare programs, it is more than spending on cash welfare programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
However, there is no monolithic state and local budget. As such, if you’re a local advocate or policymaker, you’ll need to go through multiple budgets to figure out what your community is spending on police and other services at each level of government.
And regardless of how you split the data the US still spends billions of dollars on police every year. In fact, as a recent reform proposal in Los Angeles shows, reducing police spending can free up millions of dollars for other services.
How has police spending changed over time?
In inflation-adjusted dollars, state and local spending on police increased from $42 billion in 1977 to $115 billion in 2017.
As a share of state and local direct expenditures, police spending remained consistently at just less than 4 percent over the entire period.
This constant level of police spending is noteworthy, given all the other economic, fiscal, and societal changes over the period. Specifically, state and local spending on health care increased dramatically over this period, so much so that K–12 spending doubled in absolute terms, but its share of total budgets decreased. Police spending remained constant, though. Violent and property crime has decreased sharply since the 1990s, but police spending has not.
What drives police spending?
What a government spends on police (or any other service) depends in large part on a complex set of demographic, economic, and fiscal conditions in those jurisdictions.
Roughly two-thirds of police spending is for payroll. Thus, a large reason why New York state spent the most per capita in 2017 ($529) and Kentucky spent the least ($186) is simply because the former pays its police officers more than the latter because of cost of living. California and Maryland have relatively high spending (and Arkansas and West Virginia have relatively low spending) for similar reasons.
But it also depends on policy choices.
That’s why it’s important for activists and policymakers seeking change to understand what their community’s governments (all of them) spend money on, how they spend that money, and why. It’s a challenging but important endeavor.
Aravind Boddupalli contributed to this post.