Local governments are pleading for federal aid to maintain public safety resources even as officials in at least 16 U.S. cities take steps to defund police departments.
With the pandemic-induced recession leaving large budget shortfalls, lobbying groups representing cities and mayors say demonstrations against racism and police brutality have laid bare the need for more federal aid to stave off deep budget cuts to law enforcement and social services vital to addressing systemic bias.
“The ability of local governments to reform policing is directly related to the budget shortfalls they are facing,” Clarence Anthony, executive director of the National League of Cities, said in an email. “Municipalities are asking for help to support the operation of public health and safety programs, housing and homeless assistance, transportation and job supports, and other programs that are essential for removing longstanding racial biases and inequities.”
So far, emergency spending cuts because of the pandemic have not led to any major rollbacks of police department budgets. Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Cincinnati, Ohio, were forced to furlough roughly 1,000 city employees each but left police untouched.
Still, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the nationwide protests that followed, city officials are being asked to take a hard look at their spending on law enforcement.
Municipalities are almost wholly responsible for financing police, paying for about 86% of the $115 billion spent on local law enforcement in 2017, according to the Urban Institute. For jurisdictions of more than one million, police spending consumes almost 10% of city budgets, according to the Urban Institute.
“Cities and states are wanting the assurance from the federal government that they’re not going to have a hole blown in their budget,” said Michael Pagano, dean of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs. “What’s happened in the last two weeks is it’s forced cities and states to examine their priorities with a different magnification of the social justice lens.”
Some cities have already taken steps to reform public safety. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has agreed to cut between $100 million and $150 million from the city’s police budget, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has vowed to implement cuts to his city’s force as well.
States may lose an estimated $765 billion of revenue through 2022 because of the recession, according to the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities. A $3 trillion stimulus bill that passed out of the Democrat-controlled U.S. House, which including aid for governments, has stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate.
“We will still need money to keep our frontline workers serving our cities. That is a definite,” said Tom Cochran, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. “When it’s all over we must have public safety in our cities and smarter public safety than we’ve had before.”