By Rose Davis
The image of the police is complicated. For some they are visions of defense against a world of crime, with TV shows and news stories depicting them as saviors of the innocent. For me, a visibly queer person, they are an unnerving presence in society because of their history.
With the events of the last decade, specifically the Black Lives Matter movement and the death of George Floyd, the relationship between police and civilians has become publicly antagonistic. Videos of swarms of police surging on protestors, throwing tear gas and stories of reckless police shootings have become active evidence of police brutality. There is one fact evidently made clear by this. The police systematically are a force of power capable of mass harm and violence.
In truth, the reputation of the police as a system has shifted drastically over the decades. There is a consistent factor through shifts though: police budgets, which include police departments, courts and state-sponsored jails and correctional facilities, stay high and don’t lower for long stretches of time.
Typically, police departments are the highest expense for towns and cities, next to education, taking up, highest to lowest, 61% of the complete budget to around 5%. In 35 of the 50 largest cities in America, police spending takes up the biggest chunk of the city’s budget according to 24/7 Wall St. . Overall, America spends over 255$ billion on policing, if we include police forces, corrections and courts together. In short, they soak up large amounts of money.
Some police budgets dipped significantly with the popularity of the “Defund the Police” movement in 2020 but many are beginning to increase them again according to Bloomberg Citylab and NBC articles from early and late 2021 respectively. For instance, New York has increased their police budgets over 200 million and LA is attempting a “3% increase in the year after the city council approved a 150$ million cut” according to Char Adams of NBC.
However, governmental financial data of police budgets simply presents the average of various police budgets, which can’t be expected to show issues outside of surface level budgeting and changes.
It does not reveal issues that aren’t number-centric. Not the policies rooted in systematic racism like their history of being used as a weapon against minorities, such as during the Civil Rights marches, or their origin as Slave Patrols. Let us not forget the “War on Crime” of 1964, the “War on Drugs” of 1974 or the Joe Biden-supported 1994 “Tough on Crime” bill(s). All of which have been shown to have increased police spending and violence on minorities according to the New York Times, The New England Journal of Medicine, and the Brennan Center of Justice.
It also doesn’t show when police forces actively influence the budgets themselves. An example of zealous policing that loops back into police budgets is in Brookside, Alabama. There has been significant issues with over-policing, where police officers would overstep and overuse their power over civilians to charge them with large amounts of fines.
These fines, a majority from arbitrary tickets, have been shown to have substantially increased the revenue of Brookside with, according to John Archibald of AL.com, “Income from fines and forfeitures rose 640% in those two years, and that money came to 49 percent of the town’s exploding $1.2 million budget.” That money directly loops back into the police departments budget. As of January 25, the Brookside chief of police, Mike Jones, resigned, claiming “personal matters” to be the cause.
Brookside is an example of what happens when police budgets and police forces get too big and start policing for profit. “A department of nine officers in a 1,253-person town is far larger than average” writes John Archibald. The average police force has 1 officer for every 544 residents. According to testimony by Jones, Brookside has 1 officer for every 144 residents. Changes are currently being made to Brookside, due to journalists rightfully shedding light on the situation.
The discussion of “defund the police” is an issue of reallocation, distributing funds from the hefty police budgets to social services that deal with the causes of crime, not the aftereffects. When police budgets are allowed to get swollen, like Brookside, they can abuse the power that budget gives them.
However, I doubt police budgets can even be “defunded.” Every few decades there seems to be a new war on illegal thing that swells police forces, rather than focus on social services that prevent crime from forming. Police can, and do, actively influence their own budgets through their actions. Brookside didn’t just happen, it happened because they had the budget and the will.