(WASHINGTON) — When President Joe Biden said “the answer” to nationwide crime surges was to fund police, he reignited intense debate on defunding police departments.
“The answer,” Biden said in his State of the Union speech on March 1, “is not to defund the police. The answer is to fund the police. Fund them with resources and training they need to protect our communities.”
With that, more are taking deeper looks into whether funding can be effective at lowering crime rates. But some advocates who spoke with ABC News continue to wonder whether defunding police departments and shifting monies to efforts like mental health service and youth programs is the ideal, multi-pronged approach to combating rising crime.
Across the country, major cities are contending with disturbing increases in crime rates.
For example, New York City saw a 38.5% increase in overall crime when comparing January 2020 to January 2021 and Philadelphia’s homicide rate in 2022 is beginning to outpace the dangerous, record-high numbers of 2021.
And when crime rises, political leaders typically focus on increasing police budgets — a Wall Street Journal report found that about half of the top 20 largest U.S. police jurisdictions proposed police funding increases in their 2022 budgets.
However, after the racial reckoning of the summer of 2020 following the murder of George Floyd by former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin, some called for “defunding” the police.
Those who advocate for defunding police say that funds from police departments should be reallocated toward other programs that address community issues like poverty, housing and more.
Those who are against defunding the police say that reducing funding will worsen crime and leave police departments without the resources to do their jobs efficiently.
“Without the police, you’re left with … no line of defense between innocent people and the potential for lawlessness,” said Jim Pasco, the executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police.
Facts about police department funding
Nationally, $115 billion is spent each year on policing, according to the criminal justice research and policy organization Vera.
The vast majority of police funding — an estimated 80% – 95% of a department’s total budget — goes to personnel, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
This means that most money goes toward putting police on the street.
“One of the largest expenditures of any police department is their payroll,” said Pasco. “It’s getting those officers hired and trained, out on the street — it’s an extraordinarily expensive undertaking.”
Spending also goes toward equipment (like gear and patrol cars), operational costs (like uniforms and office supplies), and the funding of community programs.
Police agencies across the country reported to the Police Executive Research Forum that hiring has stalled or decreased, while resignations and retirements have increased.
Those who advocate for defunding police say this proves money allocated to personnel should go elsewhere, while others say it shows more money is needed to better train and retain good police officers.
“You need money to hire people,” Pasco said. “You need money to recruit qualified people, hire them, train them and put them out on the street and put them to work.”
Others say funding to get police back on the streets isn’t worth it because the job has become almost impossible to recruit for.
Eugene O’Donnell, a former NYPD officer and lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says police are forced to work longer and take on dangerous situations with less backup due to the poor retention and hiring rates.
“You’re simply not going to get humans to put on police uniforms, especially in places where they would be needed the most. They’re not going to go near the job now,” O’Donnell said. “The people that will want the job will be scary.”
As a result, he says departments — those provided with more funding or not — are extraordinarily stretched.
To fund or defund: Measuring which is more successful
Factors like falling crime, fewer violent or harmful police interactions and successful community programs are just a few of the considerations for some experts to consider that expanded police funding is a productive tactic.
But others, including Sakira Cook, senior director of the justice reform program at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, says that investing in an increased police presence and funding is not the way to go.
“For decades, policymakers have pushed tough-on-crime policies that have not made us safer, but only wreaked havoc and destroyed lives — particularly in Black and Brown communities, while costing us billions,” Cook said.
She says that tough-on-crime officials have often implemented strict criminal codes, long prison sentences and expanded police power on the streets.
A University of Dayton Law Review study said it found that these kinds of policies did not reduce crime rates. Research in the Police Journal also failed to find a relationship between increased police presence and crime deterrence.
A National Bureau of Economic Research study found that additional officers can translate to fewer homicides — but can lead to more arrests for low-level offenses.
Hans Menos, the vice president of Law Enforcement Initiatives for the Center for Policing Equity says that these laws and funded efforts don’t fix the roots of crime — poor local infrastructure, accessibility to community programs and services, etc.
“I vastly prefer conversations on funding and resources that talk about systems of care, like community development … all the other things that have been neglected in favor of systems of punishment,” Menos told ABC News.
However, some departments have shifted resources and now fund mental and behavioral health professionals who can respond to lower-level calls. This, proponents say, reduces pressure on the police, reduces community contact with police and eases the burden on the criminal justice system.
“Many people have started these alternate responder programs with great success,” Menos said.
He added: “The programs that take social services and embed them within police departments are successful because it’s taking the idea of a first responder and recognizing that it needs to be a whole lot more specialized and needs to be a lot more responsive to community concerns.”
How funded and defunded police departments measure up
Some of the most well-funded departments in the country — many of which increased their budgets in 2021, including Baltimore, Maryland and Washington, D.C., — saw a rise in violent crimes. However, a few have seen major decreases, like in Wilmington, Delaware.
Several of the departments that have reduced their budgets, including Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco have also seen spikes in crime.
Some of the departments that cut their budgets invested in mental health responders to low-level or non-violent calls.
Many of these programs are relatively new, so it’s difficult to measure long-term success.
The complexities of the current state of policing in the U.S. has experts disagreeing on whether more funding or less funding is “the answer.”
“To make this investment in our communities, we must shrink the footprint of the criminal-legal system in our lives, by sizing budgets and shifting resources away from solely criminalization and incarceration toward investments in social programs and services,” Cook said.
Some think the police are no longer the public safety tool of choice with the way they are currently functioning.
“The police profession at this point is beyond repair,” O’Donnell said. “And we would be better off figuring out other ways to secure the public. “
Some say otherwise.
“The vast majority of Americans want to be want to feel safe in their homes and in their churches and their schools and their transportation systems,” Pasco said. “It sometimes takes police officers to ensure that that is a possibility.”
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