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Many police budgets shrank in 2020 — partly in response to the defunding movement and partly because of the fiscal impact of the pandemic and recession.
Some major cities that decreased their police budgets last year have reversed course.
Some cities are moving to restore or increase police spending after a year of budget cuts induced by the pandemic and public demands for "defunding" police departments in favor of social services.
But a viral claim shared on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook says, in apparent disappointment, that police departments never really cut their spending.
"Police budgets are at their highest they've ever been, there hasn’t actually been any defunding the police," the tweet says, adding that recent crime spikes demonstrate that police spending is ineffective and could be invested into communities instead.
A screenshot of the Twitter post garnered nearly 10,000 likes on Instagram. This post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook, which owns Instagram.)
We looked into the claim that police budgets are at their highest point, but couldn’t find current national numbers to back it up. The more recent data, looking at the nation’s biggest cities, shows that their aggregate police spending did decline in the past year, and some cities did cut their police budgets substantially. But there was no overarching trend — fewer than half of the 50 largest cities cut their police budgets, and some that did are now planning to raise them again.
The past year has been unusual for police budgets, which reflected the fiscal effects of the pandemic and recession, as well as the early response to summer protests against police violence and racial injustice. Federal relief funds have helped many states and municipalities supplement their budgets, allowing them to maintain public services while containing their own spending.
The most comprehensive federal data available on police spending goes only up to 2017, prior to the "defund the police"' movement that gained attention after George Floyd’s 2020 killing by a Minneapolis police officer.
State and local governments spent $115 billion on police in 2017, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In inflation-adjusted dollars, that was higher than it had ever been, and up 26% from 2000. Police spending per capita rose 29% in that period, though the growth was concentrated between 2000 and 2009.
However, it’s hard to analyze trends in police spending based on state and local budget numbers alone.
Legal scholar Roger Michalski explained that policing is a decentralized public function, with budgets and responsibilities shared between different levels of government and overlapping jurisdictions. There’s also a range of federal programs that channel money to state and local governments.
Recent reports on police spending have concentrated on major cities. Michalski says these analyses are not a representative sample of the nation as a whole, but they do provide a way to gauge trends.
According to research compiled by Bloomberg CityLab, the 50 largest U.S. cities reduced their 2021 police budgets by 5.2% in aggregate, while average law enforcement spending as a share of direct expenditures in those cities remained stable.
Of the 50 cities, more than half increased or maintained their police budgets last year. The increases amounted to 8.6% in Tampa, 5.4% in San Diego, and 4.6% in Atlanta.
Some of the remaining cities made substantial cuts, more in line with the defunding movement that calls for shifting police spending toward social and community services. The Austin, Texas, City Council voted last summer to cut $21.5 million from the police budget and transfer another $128 million from the Police Department to other city departments. So contrary to the Twitter claim, there has been some defunding.
Other cities scaled back planned cuts. While New York City officials said they agreed to cut $1 billion in police spending, Mayor de Blasio’s budget slashed less than half that. The Minneapolis City Council cut $7.8 million from the police department last year but later injected $6.4 million back into their budget to hire new officers.
Michalski said it’s still too early to detect trends in how police budgets are changing nationwide in the wake of last year’s protests.
"Just because we see a one year dip in police budgets doesn’t mean there’s a radical transformation," he said.
"Police departments may be holding on to bigger expenditures until the dust settles," he said, but eventually they will make those outlays.
There are already signs that the lower police budgets last year in some cities may have been temporary. Of the 12 big cities that have approved fiscal year 2022 budgets, nine are spending more for police.
In Louisville, Ky., where Breonna Taylor was killed, the mayor’s proposed budget for the fiscal year 2021-22 would increase the police budget by $8.5 million. In the previous year, funding was kept flat.
In Phoenix, the approved budget for the fiscal year 2022 allocates an additional $3.7 million to the police department, largely to add civilian staff positions. The San Diego mayor’s budget proposal increases the police department budget to $592 million from $568 million. Houston approved a 2022 budget with an additional $30 million for police.
A viral tweet said, "Police budgets are at their highest they've ever been, there hasn’t actually been any defunding the police."
There’s not enough current or comprehensive data to back the claim that police budgets are the highest ever. The latest nationwide figures supporting it go only up to 2017, and police budget responsibilities are shared among various jurisdictions and levels of government, making comparisons difficult.
The claim that "there hasn’t actually been any defunding," is not supported. Some municipal governments did take money away from police department operating budgets in the past year, though it’s not yet clear how long those cuts will last, and some are reversing course.
The post contains an element of truth but lacks evidence to support its broadest claims. We rate it Mostly False.
Instagram post, May 31, 2021
Twitter post, May 30, 2021
Bloomberg, "Cities Say They Want to Defund the Police. Their Budgets Say Otherwise," January 12, 2021
Bureau of Justice Statistics, "State and Local Government Expenditures on Police Protection in the U.S., 2000-2017," July 7, 2020
PolitiFact, "Facebook post makes unproven claim about police funding and homicides," May 28, 2021
PolitiFact, "How many police departments are in the United States?," July 10, 2016
Email Interview, Rashawn Ray, Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, June 11, 2021
Interview, Roger Michalski, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Oklahoma College of Law, June 11, 2021
Urban Institute, "What Police Spending Data Can (and Cannot) Explain amid Calls to Defund the Police," June 9, 2020
Wall Street Journal, "Cities Reverse Defunding the Police Amid Rising Crime," May 26, 2021
The Guardian, "These US cities defunded police: 'We're transferring money to the community,’" March 11, 2021
San Diego Union Tribune, "San Diego leaders calling for thorough analysis of shifting money, tasks away from Police Department," May 10, 2021
Arizona Republic, "Phoenix approves budget despite criticism of crisis response program, police funding," May 19, 2021
Bloomberg, "NYC’s Violent Crime Is Up; So Is the City’s Police Budget," May 6, 2021
IBO, "How much did the 2021 adopted budget reduce spending for the New York City Police Department?," August 18, 2020
PolitiFact, "Murders are up in Austin, but little proof that's tied to police defunding," June 11, 2021
Houston Public Media, "Houston Passes $5.1 Billion Annual Budget, Using Federal Aid To Plug Deficit," June 2, 2021
MinnPost, "Minneapolis City Council votes to spend $6.4 million on new police officers," February 12, 2021
New York Times,"Minneapolis City Council Votes to Remove $8 Million From Police Budget," December 10, 2020
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