Federal (De)Funding of Local Police

11 Pages Posted: 19 Jan 2021 Last revised: 25 Mar 2021

See all articles by Roger Michalski

Roger Michalski

University of Oklahoma - College of Law

Stephen Rushin

Loyola University Chicago School of Law

Date Written: November 10, 2020


Across the political spectrum, politicians, commentators, and activists frequently invoke federal funding as a lever to induce changes in local police behavior. But can federal funding function as an effective policy lever at the local level? Is federal funding or the threat of defunding a sufficiently strong tool to effectuate deeply contentious policy goals over local opposition?

This Essay conducts an empirical examination of federal funding for local and state police agencies in the United States. It finds that the federal government remains a relatively minor contributor to local police budgets. We find that federal funding only reaches a minority of local police agencies. Similarly, federal funds account, on average, for a relatively small percentage of what the typical American municipality spends on policing each year.

Overall, our findings suggest that most American law enforcement agencies are not acutely reliant on federal funding. These findings have several important implications for the literature on police reform and accountability. First, efforts to use the lever of federal funding to alter the behavior of local police departments may be ineffective. This may be particularly true when the reform demanded by federal lawmakers is expensive or unpopular locally. In such cases, rational local leaders may assess that the risk of losing federal funding is preferable to change demanded by federal lawmakers. Second, our findings suggest that federal lawmakers may be better off considering alternative paths other than the withholding of federal funds in promoting constitutional policing. To this point, we briefly lay out some additional avenues for federal police reform that do not rely on leveraging limited federal funds. Finally, our findings reinforce the fact that the ongoing debate about defunding police departments and reimagining public safety must occur primarily at the local, not federal level.

Keywords: police, policing, police misconduct, funding, police violence, civil rights, police accountability, defunding, police abolition, abolition

Suggested Citation

Michalski, Roger and Rushin, Stephen, Federal (De)Funding of Local Police (November 10, 2020). Georgetown Law Journal Online, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3728104 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3728104

Roger Michalski (Contact Author)

University of Oklahoma - College of Law ( email )

300 Timberdell Road
Norman, OK 73019
United States

Stephen Rushin

Loyola University Chicago School of Law ( email )

25 E. Pearson
Chicago, IL 60611
United States

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics