The fatal arrest of George Floyd has sparked nationwide protests demanding an end to police brutality and a restructuring of police departments across the country. That change is being manifested in calls to reform, defund, dismantle or abolish the police.
The movement to defund the police seems to have gained the most support from thought leaders and policymakers across the nation.
Despite a sharp decline in crime rates since the early 1990s, the United States is spending more on policing than ever. In 1980, police spending was just around $47 billion adjusted for inflation, but by 2015, spending skyrocketed to almost $143 billion, an increase of more than 200%.
All three levels of government — federal, state and local — contribute to the cost of police protection. But their contributions are far from equal. In 2015, local governments paid for more than two-thirds of police spending. The federal government came second at 20.4%, followed by state governments at 11%.
Out of the three levels of government, federal spending has seen the fastest rate of growth. Between 1982 and 2015, federal spending increased by 354%, faster than both local and state spending combined. These include "a number of grant programs that are pushing money to the state and local government," according to Paul Ashton, director of organizational impact at the Justice Policy Institute.
However, most federal spending comes from two major grants from the Department of Justice — COPS and Byrne JAG. The Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, program was established as part of a bill signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994 to combat the rise in violent crime at the time. Although its funding has dramatically decreased over the years, it still funneled $304 million in 2019 to state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies.
The Byrne Justice Assistance Grants, known as Byrne JAG, were started as a part of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 and consolidated in 2005 with a program that honored an officer who died in the line of duty. Although the program was designed to award funding to a wide variety of initiatives, more than half of the grants are awarded to support law enforcement across the country. The funding from Byrne JAG still averages around $435 million each year.
Whether federal funding for law enforcement actually benefits the community has long been a subject of debate. The Congressional Research Service concluded that based on three separate studies, COPS grants showed no universal effect on crime rates. Some studies even suggested that the grants might not have been effective in cities with more than 250,000 people. In 2006, the Bush administration sought to eliminate all Bryne JAG funding due to a lack of demonstrable results, but it was eventually reauthorized through 2012.
The movement to defund the police stems from the same question on whether communities benefit from millions of dollars in funding from federal, state and local governments. "People are recognizing that budgets often are related to power" says Rashawn Ray, a governance studies fellow at the Brookings Institution. "And in law enforcement, one of the things that we see is that the larger their budgets get, that hasn't necessarily correlated with a reduction in crime. So then people start saying, then why do their budgets look the way that it does?"
Only time and more research will determine whether defunding the police will create safer communities. One thing that is for sure, the movement is leading to critical conversations at the local level on how to best protect citizens.
"I think that this whole notion of defunding the police is an important conversation that's happening," said Ashton. "I think that we really need to think as a country about where we're investing in local, state and federal dollars, and how we're making the most use of that money to positively impact communities."