A study of budgets in over 400 American cities over the last 5 years shows that, despite persistent claims by politicians, pundits, and police unions, there was no mass defunding of police. Police departments got the same average cut of the city budget in 2021 as they did in previous years.
Defunding the police became a mainstream political topic in June of 2020, when nine members of the Minneapolis City Council announced their intentions to dismantle the city’s police department with cardboard signs saying “Defund Police.” George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis Police officers had set off a nationwide wave of protests which often called for cuts to law enforcement budgets as a way to curb police violence—and, briefly, it was floated as policy.
The call to “defund” was less of a unified call for abolition, and more of a general sentiment that directing nearly a third of taxpayer money to the police seemed inconsistent with the regular high-profile incidents of police violence. Opponents worried that fewer police would lead to more crime, and these ideas could have been the start of a long-overdue conversation about policing in America.
But far away from the reasonable policy debate, defunding the police quickly became a right-wing bogeyman. As cities across the country reconsidered their police budgets, any insufficiently pro-police politician could be accused of wanting to defund. Black Lives Matter, Antifa, the burning precincts and looted Targets would naturally follow. Right–wing publications, politicians, and other outlets accused the “defund” movement of spurring a national crime wave, both directly and by decimating police morale so much that it was affecting hiring.
“They defunded the police. What do they get?” said former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton in May of 2021. “Rising crime, cops leaving in droves, difficulty recruiting. Now, they’re waking up to the fact that our cities are unsafe.”
49% of participants in a Politico/Morning Consult poll from February 2022 blamed defunding police for rising violent crime rates in America. 69% believed increasing police budgets would decrease crime “a lot” or “some.”
The problem is there was little if any “defunding” of the police. Our analysis of over 400 American municipal budgets found that police departments in America got more or less the same amount of money in 2021 than they did in the previous three years. The budget cuts that did pass in a handful of cities were modest compared to the size of the total budget.
We acquired budgets from 2018 to 2022 from 419 American municipalities, selected for prominence, size, location and diversity. We then extracted the amount of the city’s general fund—the bulk of city funding—which was directed to the police department, and compared those amounts across locations and years. A more thorough statistical analysis of our data is available here.
Our model found that the percentage of the general fund dedicated to law enforcement stayed consistent from 2018 to 2021—around 29%—after accounting for city- and state-level trends. If police budgets shrank (or grew), they did in proportion to the overall budget. In 2022, cities allocated about 3% less for police, but did so after the “defund” backlash was in full swing.
Police budgets did increase less in 2021 than in previous years. From 2020 to 2021, budgets grew an average of 1.8%, compared to 3.8% between 2018 and 2019, and 4.5% between 2019 and 2020. From 2021 to 2022, average growth was 5.0%.
However, city general funds (the entire budget, more or less) followed the same pattern. While general funding grew by an average of 3.7% from 2018 to 2019, and by 5.6% from 2019 to 2020, it only increased by 1.5% from 2020 to 2021. Growth returned to 7.4% from 2021 to 2022. The similar patterns indicate changes in police funding have as much to do with overall changes in budget size as anything else.
So what about the fights over police funding in cities like Minneapolis and Seattle? While Seattle City Council members initially aimed to halve the Seattle PD budget, the actual decrease was around 11%, from $406 million in 2020 to $360 million in 2021. SPD still gets $363 million for the 2022 fiscal year. The Minneapolis City Council initially backed a plan to replace its city police department with a redesigned “Department of Public Safety.” (This new department’s intended budget was unclear, but its critics still considered the move a form of defunding.) That support faded, and eventually voters rejected the redesign by a 56% to 44% margin in a citywide election. Meanwhile, Minneapolis PD did take a 14.7% cut in 2021 (from $188 million to $160 million), but recovered almost all of it in 2022.
Austin reduced its police department’s budget by 32.5% in 2021; then, like Minneapolis, gave it all back in 2022.
Most controversies about attempts to “defund” in 2021 involved fights over a small fraction of a department’s budget. A push to redirect $865k of the $23 million Norman, Oklahoma, allocated for law enforcement erupted into citywide outrage. Asheville, North Carolina, shaved $770k from the $30 million originally earmarked for police. Despite its anti-cop reputation, Portland, Oregon, reduced its $229 million police budget by only $8 million.
Albuquerque, New Mexico, successfully launched a community safety department as an alternative to policing, but only reduced police funding by 12%, from $205 million to $180 million. It jumped back up to $222 million in 2022.
Even with their budgets “cut,” Seattle, Minneapolis, and Austin police were still getting 22.4%, 33.1%, and 31.1% of their city’s budget, respectively. None could be realistically considered “defunded.”
This raises a question as to what actually counts as “defunding.” None of the adjustments made in response to the demands of protesters are unprecedented, either in size or proportion. In 2020, Tulsa, Oklahoma, reduced its police budget by $12 million (11%). Honolulu, Hawaii, PD took a $15 million cut (6%) in 2019. Corpus Christi, Texas, Naperville, Illinois, and Grand Junction, Colorado, all reduced their police funding by over 12% in 2021, with no reason to believe they were motivated by protests. Budgets are complicated, carefully negotiated documents that adjust to new circumstances every year. Sometimes the numbers go down, and as previously stated, there is no indication the numbers went down any more than usual in 2021.
In light of this data, Joe Biden’s plea to give the police more resources (“Fund them. Fund them. Fund them with more resources and training”) in his 2022 State of the Union is just a request to throw more money at a government program with a questionable track record. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s “Re-fund the Police” initiative funnels $150 million of state money correcting a mistake nobody actually made.
Still, any public conversation about municipal police funding is progress. After all, while a more recent poll put support for “defunding the police” at a scant 28%, 43% of participants did support “redirect[ing] local police funding to community development programs.”