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. 

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.