Protests over the death of George Floyd have spread across the country, with thousands of people turning out in city streets to oppose police brutality. In many places, protesters were met with police in military-grade riot gear firing rubber bullets, launching tear-gas grenades, and indiscriminately pepper-spraying. As writer Caissie St. Onge put it on Twitter, “It’s kinda wild seeing pics of so many police officers all over the USA wearing so much paramilitary gear they look like Robocops while some doctors in our hospitals are still wearing garbage bags for PPE.”
There’s little evidence, if any, to suggest that more police actually correlates to fewer crimes—and more aggressive policing, like so-called “broken windows” policing and New York’s stop-and-frisk policy, seems to only increase arrests for extremely minor offenses while stoking violent interactions between police and minorities. Yet the hard numbers show that public officials have favored police department funding over public health and other concerns.
Los Angeles is a prime example: Mayor Eric Garcetti’s 2020-2021 city budget gives police $3.14 billion out of the city’s $10.5 billion. That’s the single biggest line item, dwarfing, say, emergency management ($6 million) and economic development ($30 million). Garcetti is also planning to raise the LAPD’s budget by 7 percent—to support bonuses for officers who have a college degree—while he’s also trying to institute pay cuts for more than 24,000 civilian city workers (to cope with budgetary fallout from the coronavirus outbreak).
In New York, which has the largest budget for any police department in the country, Mayor Bill de Blasio has called to reduce the NYPD’s budget by $23.8 million—a step in the right direction, but only 0.4 percent of the department’s $5 billion budget. As Brooklyn College sociology professor Alex Vitale writes in the New York Post, “New York City spends more on policing than it does on the Departments of Health, Homeless Services, Housing Preservation and Development, and Youth and Community Development combined.”
In other major metro areas, the trend continues: Oakland PD receives nearly half of the city’s discretionary spending( $264 million out of $592 million), dwarfing every other expenditure, including human services, parks and recreation, and transportation combined. A whopping 39 percent of Chicago’s 2017 budget went to police, and still the department got even more money, peaking in 2020 with a 7 percent increase to nearly $1.8 billion. Mayor Lori Lightfoot told reporters that no matter how dire the city’s budget shortfall gets as a result of coronavirus, she is “not ever gonna cut back on public safety.”
In Minneapolis, the city council and Democratic mayor Jacob Frey passed a $1.6 billion budget for 2020, bumping up the Minneapolis Police Department’s funding by $10 million (to $193 million) in order to add an extra class of recruits. But according to the local ABC affiliate, programs and agencies that could actually prevent crime get a relative pittance: $31 million for affordable housing, $250,000 for community organizations working with at-risk youth, and just over $400,000 for the Office of Crime Prevention.
Local police departments are also awash in cash and resources from the federal government, which keeps outfitting them in military gear. Between 1990 and 2017, the Defense Department provided $5.4 billion in military equipment to police departments across the country, including night-vision googles, bomb-diffusing robots, and 18-ton “mine-resistant, ambush-protected” vehicles previously deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq.