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Police Wrestle With Surge In Crime In U.S. Cities Amid Defunding Efforts

A violent summer hits some major U.S. cities as police face budget cuts due to the pandemic and efforts to combat police brutality. Police Wrestle With Surge In Crime In U.S. Cities Amid Defunding Efforts

Law-enforcement officials in several large U.S. cities are wrestling with a sharp rise in violent crime amid a national debate over the role of police, calls to reduce police-department budgets and growing fiscal troubles.


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Some cities are on track to have their most violent summers in years.

In Milwaukee, homicides are up 37% so far this year, on pace to break the record of 167 in 1991, which included 16 murders by convicted serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Homicides so far this year in Chicago are ahead of the pace of 2016, which marked the city’s highest tally since 1996. In New York and Los Angeles, which have seen falling numbers of homicides for years, killings this year are up 23% and 11.6%, respectively. Kansas City, Mo., has recorded 99 killings since January, far outpacing any record for the first six months of the year.

Police departments already face budget cuts around the U.S., the result of falling tax revenues from pandemic lockdowns. Covid-19 has also made it difficult for officers to safely conduct community outreach, say experts, worsening police-community relations.

Community groups acknowledge the crime increase but say more aggressive policing to combat it shouldn’t come at the expense of enacting broader reform.

“This is not a quick fix,” said V.J. Smith, national president of Minneapolis-based Mad Dads, a group that acts as a buffer between the community and police by trying to de-escalate violent situations. “The only way to unite a community is to build it first.”

Amid revenue shortfalls and calls to defund police, Art Acevedo, Houston police chief and head of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, said cities are now slashing police budgets without plans in place to reallocate funds or replace functions typically performed by police. “You don’t tear down the building you’re living in until you have a new building to move into,” he said.

City leaders and law-enforcement officials say the months of lockdown, rising unemployment, more guns on the street and the fallout from mass protests over the George Floyd killing helped create conditions for more violence.

“This was a perfect storm,” said Milwaukee Police Chief Alfonso Morales. “We had a series of events that many of us probably never experienced in our time.”

At the same time, law-enforcement officials say they are weighing the risks of aggressively enforcing the law, concerned that a backlash from activists, protesters and residents could trigger attacks on police or a replay of the riots and looting that marked some of the earlier protests. In some cases, officials say, police are backing away from some kinds of petty crime arrests that give them a higher profile on the street, hoping to quell tensions.

“It’s a lot more dangerous to become a police officer,” said Ray Kelly, New York City’s former longstanding police commissioner. “What you see is a backing away.”

New York City disbanded its anticrime unit of plainclothes officers on June 15, part of a $1 billion reduction in the city’s police budget. The city logged 205 shootings in June, the highest for the month since 1996. Police cited the release of some prisoners from Rikers Island amid coronavirus concerns and bail reforms that went into place earlier in the year.

Some departments, including New York City, have expressed concern that officers are filing for retirement in larger numbers than usual since the protests began. Between May 25 and July 3, 503 New York Police Department officers filed for retirement, compared with 287 in the same period in 2019.

“This is a unique period in policing right now and you’ve got police officers who, if they were thinking of retiring, this pushes them toward that,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington, D.C., police research and policy organization. He said the effects wouldn’t be felt the same everywhere.

In Chicago, the city announced a new specialized unit targeting violence-prone neighborhoods to combat a surge in shootings and homicides.

Updated: 9-22-2020

‘We Have Not Defunded Anything’: Big Cities Boost Police Budgets

It seemed like a turning point. In May, a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, sparking protests against racism across the country and an unrelenting demand from protesters in city after city: Defund the police.

But after months of demonstrations, that rallying cry hasn’t translated into reality. While a few major cities like New York and Los Angeles have made large, high profile cuts, more than half actually increased spending or kept it unchanged as a percentage of their discretionary spending, based on a Bloomberg CityLab analysis of 34 of the largest 50 U.S. cities that have finalized 2021 budgets.

As a group, the difference between police spending as a share of the general funds fell less than 1% from last year. The city council in Indianapolis is poised to vote on an increase to its police budget in the coming weeks.

Defunding Myth

More than half of cities are boosting police spending or keeping it the same from the last fiscal year.

The reasons for such moves vary by city and state. For some, like Charlotte, North Carolina, residents’ calls to reduce police spending came too late in the budget process to have any impact on the final outcome, and for others, like San Antonio, increases were inevitable because of prior union negotiations. The coronavirus pandemic is also pressuring city councils to scale back plans for all types of infrastructure and services—including police departments—to help make up for an anticipated plunge in tax revenue next year.

“We have not defunded anything in this moment,” said Oluchi Omeoga, an organizer with Minneapolis’s Black Visions Collective, which is working to reimagine policing in the city. “As much as we’ve said that we’ve defunded, as much as there has been a national movement to defund, the police have the same budget that they had three months ago.”

The negligible changes across many U.S. cities run counter to a narrative being pushed by President Donald Trump, who has denounced places including Chicago, Seattle and New York as lawless and beset by violent protesters.

He is attempting to paint the 2020 election as a referendum on law and order, by falsely stating his opponent Joe Biden wants to get rid of police. Biden said in August that more investment is needed to properly reform police departments.

Police budgets, along with total spending, have been on an upward trajectory for the last decade. A year passes, the budget goes up. Take Boston, which spent $315.8 million on police in 2012, according to an Urban Institute analysis.

In 2017, the city’s general fund spending on police increased to $375.5 million, and by fiscal 2020, the city was spending $414.3 million. This year marks a shift, however: Boston will spend $404.2 million in fiscal 2021.

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a D.C.-based police non-profit, attributes some of those increases to spending on officer body cameras and new training programs that address use of force.

“When you look at these incidents where people have questioned the police response, those kinds of issues are deep-seated,” Wexler said. “There’s going to need to be a commitment to fix those and that’s going to cost resources.”

Police Wrestle With Surge In Crime In U.S. Cities Amid Defunding Efforts

Major Expense

In fiscal year 2021, the majority of cities surveyed will spend more than a quarter of their budget on police.

Bloomberg CityLab looked at the slice of police department funding that comes out of city general funds, which are discretionary monies used to finance day-to-day services, as a window into the priorities of the biggest U.S. municipalities.

However, police funding can come from other parts of the budget or outside sources—think one-time spending for major equipment purchases, debt service for construction projects, pension contributions, federal and state grants, county-level funding or even donations from private foundations.

General fund spending on police is mostly headcount and salaries, so reductions to this budget generally means fewer cops, Wexler said. A pullback means departments are letting officers go, vacancies are going unfilled or officers are retiring without replacements.

It is not about taking all the money away from the police and there being no police left on your streets to deal with violent crime.

That’s part of the goal of the defund movement, says Cat Brooks, the co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project—to replace those officers with other social services. In Oakland, California, where she’s based, the council voted to cut the department’s total budget by $14 million in part by transferring police department functions into other civilian departments, while raising the share of general fund spending on police by about 1%. They’ll spend another $1.85 million on piloting a new response to mental health-related 911 calls.

“There’s a lot of fear mongering being perpetrated by both the [Oakland] mayor and other city council members,” said Brooks. “It is not, ladies and gentlemen, about taking all the money away from the police and there being no police left on your streets to deal with violent crime.”

As several of the largest U.S. cities have met to finalize their 2021 budgets, a few have harnessed the energy of protests in unprecedented ways: New York City slashed $1 billion in police spending, Los Angeles cut $150 million, $16 million of it from the general fund, and promised to divert it to Black communities, and Austin, Texas, followed with $144.5 million in reductions.

Cutting police spending and deciding where to reallocate it isn’t a simple task. For Austin, which spent more per capita on police than other major Texas cities before this year, the process was years in the making, according to city council member Greg Casar.

Austin is eliminating cadet classes while trimming overtime and miscellaneous spending to immediately redirect about $20 million from the city police department to homeless services, mental health services and family violence prevention among other social programs.

It will slash an additional $80 million from the police budget by moving functions like forensics, 911 dispatch and internal affairs out of police jurisdiction and into independent departments, while the remaining $50 million or so will be earmarked for further discussion, he said.

Police Wrestle With Surge In Crime In U.S. Cities Amid Defunding Efforts

Austin Reinvestments

The Texas capital made significant cuts to police spending, moving some funds directly into social services.

Outside of these headlines, the full picture of budget decisions is more complex. Covid-19 has stressed city finances, forcing them to make hard decisions about what programs to shrink and which to support. And due to the timing of the protests and social upheaval, political calculations have been balanced with practical ones.

“It’s hard to say where there are policy choices and where there are governments reacting to these huge existential crises,” said Richard Auxier, senior policy associate in the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center at the Urban Institute.

Oklahoma City raised total police spending in fiscal 2021 by $8 million. But many of those costs were one-time capital expenses, like paying for new patrol cars. When you look at their spending as a share of the general fund, the city actually cut $2.5 million. But they also cut their total general fund expenditures, so they’re still managing to spend a greater percentage of their general fund on police this year than last year.

For a city that went through a significant belt-tightening, a decision not to pull back on police has other ramifications, said city council member JoBeth Hamon, who voted against the budget. There was an opportunity to fund social programs and alternatives to policing, she said. The city is also losing out on services that improve quality of life—parks are being mowed less frequently and a bike sharing program was cut, she added.

Still, there’s never been this level of community engagement in her time on the council, Hamon said. That means change is more likely next year, now that residents have learned how the process works. “It feels unlikely we’ll go back to where we were before,” she said.

“Budgets are a moral document.”

In Phoenix, the movement was harnessed not through cuts, but through new expenditures: when Covid hit, budget lines for a new accountability and transparency office and a civilian review board were the first to be slashed, says city council member Carlos Garcia. But by the summer, the council also chose to fully fund the accountability offices at $3 million—while also increasing police spending by 4.5%. Instead of adding new officers, the city’s increased police spending comes mostly from pensions.

Police Wrestle With Surge In Crime In U.S. Cities Amid Defunding Efforts

“To spend half or more than half of our budget on policing sends a signal to communities that enforcement and locking people up is our priority,” Garcia said. “Budgets are a moral document.”

Budgets are also living documents. Several of the country’s largest cities have not yet approved finalized budgets, and the ones that did have the discretion to revise them as the year goes on and the long-term economic ramifications of Covid-19 are assessed. For others, there’s next year.

“These are systems that have been around forever, and they’re all intertwined, and so trying to dismantle that is the process that’s going on right now,” said Tracie Keesee, co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity and its senior vice president of Justice Initiatives. “What you hear is the pain of wanting that to happen immediately.”

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