55 Pages Posted: 18 Mar 2020
Date Written: July 1, 2019
A number of civil rights activists have called for the defunding or abolition of American police departments. These activists claim that the United States overinvests in police, leaving fewer scarce resources to support other government services. Activists also claim that overinvestment in policing contributes to higher rates of police misconduct and unnecessary criminalization, particularly in communities of color.
This Article considers these calls for the defunding of police. It ultimately cautions against widespread defunding of police and offers an alternative proposal. Part I brings together multiple national databases on local government expenditures to evaluate empirically how states and municipalities fund policing. It shows that local police funding varies remarkably across jurisdictions. Much of this variation exists because police departments derive funding primarily from local sales and property taxes. Because of this funding mechanism, economically disadvantaged communities most in need of public-safety services can often least afford them.
Part II argues that the defunding of police departments on a wide scale may have significant and unintended consequences. This Article argues that defunding could increase crime rates, hamper efforts to control officer misconduct, and reduce officer safety. Faced with smaller budgets, defunded agencies may also seek additional revenue through potentially harmful means like excessive ticketing and civil asset forfeitures. Defunding could push the delivery of public-safety services to the private sector. And defunded agencies may ultimately lower officer salaries, thereby limiting recruitment and retention of qualified personnel.
Given these drawbacks, this Article remains skeptical that defunding will improve policing in many jurisdictions. Instead, this Article argues that states should fundamentally reimagine how they fund the police. States should view policing as a public good that ought to be equitably distributed across the population according to need. Just as some state legislatures have passed revenue-sharing initiatives designed to equalize the availability of public goods such as education, so too should states act to equalize the funding of local police departments according to need. This would ensure that all localities have minimally sufficient resources to investigate crime and promote public safety regardless of the strength of the local tax base. Additionally, to ensure the quality of policing services, states should require that each local police department earmark a specified percentage of its budget for officer training and accountability. Combined, these regulations of police funding could ensure that localities have sufficient resources to promote the public good without drawing limited resources away from other community initiatives.
Keywords: police, policing, police misconduct, funding, police violence, civil rights, police accountability, defunding, police abolition, abolition
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