The reality of US city budgets: Police funding eclipses most other agencies

Police in riot gear walk down Main Street to disperse protesters on May 30, 2020 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

Across the US, protesters stand on sidewalks and city streets holding signs, megaphones and petitions. They carry the names of the victims on their lips as they speak out about the police brutality that has led to the deaths of so many Black Americans: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner. 

Some protests result in violence from both protesters and police. Some are largely peaceful. As protests continue for the third week following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, one demand rings louder than the rest: defund the police.

The rallying cry has become a focus because US police departments often receive the majority of a city budget’s “general fund”.

Municipal general funds are mainly financed with taxes such as property taxes, income taxes and sales taxes. They also consist mainly of discretionary money, which means that they are not required to go to any specific service. Because of this, it is most likely those funds would be reallocated if cities were to defund police.

But budgets, like cities, are complex and ever-changing. The variables involved in balancing the financial needs of a city government can make it unclear how much is too much or too little to spend on police, or any other department for that matter. What is clear is that most US cities spend far more on police than they do on other city services.

As cities across the US begin to seriously question the amount they spend on policing, better data and analysis will be crucial in deciding how to use the money that police departments do get.

CityMetric analysed the past three years of general fund budgets from US cities that have seen major or noteworthy protests. We also looked at violent crime rates and officer-involved shootings over that time period.

While this is not an exhaustive study, several findings emerged from the data. First, there did not seem to be any meaningful correlation between per capita police spending and improvements in violent crime rates. Second, cities where police have recently reviewed or reformed use-of-force practices generally saw more peaceful protests.

Phoenix, Arizona

In 2018, the city of Phoenix worked with the National Police Foundation to analyse deadly use-of-force cases after the city experienced a sharp increase in fatal shootings by police officers.

Among the recommendations from the NPF’s report were improving officer training, documenting when officers point their guns at people, improving consistency in data collection and increasing meaningful community engagement.


In 2019, Phoenix’s fatal police shootings were cut in half, according to data from the Washington Post’s Fatal Force database. Based on year-to-date numbers for 2020, the city is on track to further reduce those encounters.

During recent protests in Phoenix, protesters called for police to kneel as a sign that their protests were not falling on deaf ears. And they did. As in most US cities where protests have occurred, the attitude of the protests can change day by day, but compared to many, Phoenix has experienced largely peaceful protests.

Phoenix reduced its violent crime rate by 4.06% between 2017 and 2019. The city spends spend an average of $339 per resident on policing.


Camden, New Jersey

In 2013, Camden dissolved its city-managed police force and instituted a county-controlled force in the wake of then-governor Chris Christie’s crippling cuts to state aid for municipalities. After a pressure campaign from local activists, the new department eventually changed how it policed the streets and set up new success measures for evaluating the department’s performance.

Camden has seen predominantly peaceful protests since the end of May. During at least one protest, police officers and residents marched side-by-side.

Camden reduced its violent crime rate by 20% between 2017 and 2019. According to the Camden County Police Department, violent crime is down 42% since 2012. 

Of the cities we examined, Camden spends the most per capita from its general fund on police. Through its shared policing agreement and other city-managed police efforts, the city spends an average of $946 per capita on police each year.


Portland, Oregon

In 2014, the US Department of Justice won a settlement agreement to reform the Portland Police Bureau after an investigation found patterns of excessive use of force by officers against people with actual or perceived mental illness. Among the requirements of the settlement were that the police enhance their policy, training and accountability when it came to dealing with the public. 

Portland’s FY 2020 budget includes funding to maintain compliance with the settlement agreement and to enhance police accountability and training.

Over the past three weeks, Portland has seen relatively peaceful protests when compared to other US cities.

The city’s average violent crime rate for the last three years was the lowest of the cities we examined. It has neither risen nor fallen during that time.

Portland’s fatal police shootings began increasing in 2018, but data from the first 6 months of 2020 indicate they are once again declining.


Portland spends an average of $335 per resident on police.


Louisville, Kentucky

Louisville, the city where police fatally shot Breonna Taylor in her home while serving a no-knock warrant earlier this year, began its protests with considerable police aggression toward protesters. There are accounts of police firing rubber bullets and tear gas into crowds and at journalists.

Louisville saw a sharp increase in fatal police shootings in 2018. That number went down in 2019 but there have already been as many fatal incidents in the first half of 2020 as there were in all of 2019.


Louisville is the only city we examined where the violent crime rate actually increased between 2017 and 2019, from 647 incidents per 100,000 residents to 806.

Louisville spends an average of $292 per resident on police.


New York City, New York

New York City, where Eric Garner was killed in 2014 while being detained by police, has also experienced aggressive police reaction to protests. In one incident, an NYPD cruiser drove into a crowd of protesters in Brooklyn. 

While NYC reduced its violent crime rate by 20% between 2017 and 2020, it also saw nearly three times as many fatal police shootings over that time period. 


New York City spends an average of $604 per each of its 8.4 million residents on police. New York organizes its budget differently than the other cities we examined. It contains different department structures and includes the Department of Education, a line item missing in most other general fund budgets. 


Minneapolis, Minnesota

Minneapolis, the site of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of police, has seen considerable violence in protests from both protesters and police.

Minneapolis has one of the higher violent crime rates among the cities we examined. Between 2017 and 2019 the city saw a 6% reduction in its violent crime rate, from 1,101 violent crimes per 100,000 to 1,029.

The city spends an average of $429 per capita on police. 


Police reform, transparency and accountability

“Traditionally,” writes the Government Finance Officers Association, an organization that represents public finance officials throughout the United States and Canada, “public participation meant voting, running for office, being involved in political campaigns, attending public hearings, and keeping informed on important issues of the day by reading government reports or the local newspaper.”

In the past three weeks, the US has witnessed a less frequent means of public participation in the budgeting process: protests.

Because of these protests, a number of city governments are now reconsidering their police funding.

Last week, Portland, Oregon, delayed its vote on the final budget over debates on police funding, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported. 

The New York City council has proposed cutting $1 billion from the NYPD.

Boston is reportedly redirecting $3 million from their police overtime budget to public health budgets instead.

Los Angeles and San Francisco are among cities also actively exploring reducing police department funding.

Simply removing money from police budgets is unlikely to solve a city’s police violence problem. The issue is also strongly tied to whether police funding is being used to enhance transparency and accountability in police departments.

Barry Friedman, director of the Policing Project, notes that cities require less accountability when it comes to how police spend money than they do from other municipal departments. That black box not only means that police departments as a whole don’t have a good handle on what works, but that citizens are more prone to distrust police tactics.

It is clear that change is coming for police departments across the US. In order for comprehensive reform to have a positive effect, city governments will need to consider not only how much money they are directing to police, but what kind of accountability and transparency their citizens will demand from those dollars.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric. 


Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.