Calls to defund or abolish police departments have become the signature demand of protesters who have taken to the streets in cities across the country over the past few weeks to denounce police violence against Black people. Proponents of such policy measures argue that the U.S. should reallocate much, or even all, of the money spent on law enforcement for anti-poverty initiatives, education, and other public services in order to more humanely address the underlying societal ills that lead to crime in the first place. Implicit in this proposition is the argument that cities spend a disproportionate percentage of their budgets on police departments, to the detriment of other services. Indeed, funding for mental health, education, affordable housing, and other programs has been steadily declining.
Already, local officials in cities like Minneapolis and New York have been making plans to slash their police budgets and shift the savings and certain social service responsibilities to other departments. In addition, officials and activists have been scrutinizing whether enough of those police budgets is going toward nonviolent intervention programs. The New York Times additionally found that, over the last 40 years, the average expenditures across 150 large cities for the police have risen 1.2 percentage points—amounting to millions of dollars annually in each of these places.
To get a better sense of just how much cities are spending on their police departments, and where within each department that money is going, I pulled the 2020 budgets for Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and Dallas—three cities in separate regions of the country with varying population sizes and demographic makeups. In Los Angeles, as in many places, policing makes up the largest chunk of the budget. Elsewhere, other expenses outpace it. For example, Dallas spends slightly more on water.
Since at least the late 1980s, every mayor of Los Angeles has sought to grow the LAPD’s budget—just from 2010 to 2020, appropriations for the department rose from $1.17 billion to $1.73 billion. For decades, the city’s goal had been to build a force of 10,000 officers, a benchmark that former Democratic Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa eventually passed in 2013. Even then, Los Angeles officials were still committed to continuing to add to the force. Current Democratic Mayor Eric Garcetti included a $120 million increase for the LAPD in the city’s 2020 budget. The killing of George Floyd and the unrest that followed, however, have prompted Garcetti to subsequently push for a $150 million budget cut for the LAPD, which could lead to downsizing for officers and other personnel. The savings would go toward a $250 million fund for youth jobs, health initiatives, trauma healing centers, and monetary damages for people who’ve experienced discrimination.
Los Angeles has a population of roughly 4 million people; the police department has nearly 10,000 officers.
The Minneapolis Police Department has been at the forefront of the nation’s debate around defunding and disbanding law enforcement after one of its officers killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Even before this act of brutality, police misconduct complaints in the city had risen more than sevenfold from 2008–18. A veto-proof majority of the Minneapolis City Council vowed to dismantle the police department on June 7. Though many of the specifics haven’t been worked out yet, this decision will likely mean that police funding will be diverted to services like mental health and drug addiction treatment; a smaller force might remain but will handle far fewer cases. Prior to the current upheaval, the department had been pushing in recent years to recruit more officers to bring the total number to at least 1,000. The number of officers in Minneapolis has been falling since 2008 due to the financial crisis and a general desire from the City Council to reduce the size of the department.
From 2010–14, Dallas had an incredibly high per capita rate of police-involved shootings, outpacing those of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Around 2012, following a high-profile incident in which an officer killed an unarmed black man, the department began undergoing extensive reforms to improve transparency and implement nonviolent community policing practices. Both crime and excessive force complaints plummeted in the ensuing years.
When devising the 2020 budget for the city, the Dallas City Council resolved to pour more funding into the Dallas Police Department as the number of officers in the force had fallen by 700 since 2011. Local activists accused council members at the time of prioritizing law enforcement over funding for anti-poverty and other social services programs. On Wednesday, the council voted to delay approval for a $6.5 million budget increase in the wake of the current police brutality protests.
The population of Dallas is roughly 1.3 million people; its police department has about 3,600 officers.