In the struggle to #defundthepolice, where does the money go?

There are lots of things to love about The Wizard of OZ. One of my favorite parts is when the munchkins sing and dance to the song, “Ding Dong the witch is dead.” Just listening, watching and remembering the performance fills me with hope. I got that same feeling when I hear activists, scholars, and politicians advocating either the abolishment or defunding of police departments throughout the country. It sounds great and hopeful, but is it?

There is no question that police department budgets make up a ridiculous share of municipal and county budgets. There is undoubtedly a lot of fat to trim, and forcing people and organizations to do more with less, or in this case to do less with less, can often times lead to creative solutions. But as with most things; it isn’t as easy as it sounds. There are numerous unintended consequences that should be considered upfront. In other words, just taking money away is not the entire story. Folks need to also think about what happens to that excess funds (if any) and where do they end up?.

Many of us agree that there’s way too much reliance on the police to deal with many of society’s most intractable problems such as drug addiction, homelessness, domestic violence, among others and that bringing an armed officer, who is not trained to deal with these issues and situations they produce, may increase police violence against citizens. And I’m all for massive reforms in how communities traditionally respond to deviance, crime and people who run afoul of the law. But, we have been here before, perhaps not like this, and there have been numerous times when we tried to reform police policies and practices much in the way it is being proposed today.

So it is important to remind us of some historical lessons. Putting aside temporarily the concerns of both naysayers and experts who wonder who or what agency is going to respond to crime (if police departments were abolished completely), and how are law enforcement agencies going to be able to fight crime and pay for Department of Justice consent mandated reforms when their budgets are cut, taking funds away from the police means that this money will have to be allocated elsewhere – but who decides where?

The real problem in my mind is that once police department budgets have been reduced, as of now there are no guarantees in place that the savings to be accrued will be spent on the kinds of things that activists and other reformers want. Are our elected municipal and county executives going to channel the resources into improved counseling services for the mentally ill, or better public schools, public health services, and libraries?

In the past most municipal and county politicians were generally happy to pony up money for public safety because they did not want to appear to be soft on crime. However, now that this pressure is off, they have been given the green light to do something different. Barring the unique timing and legal constraints of each municipality and county with respect to shifting around money around in their budgets, here is what might happen when we defund the police:

To begin with, the cost savings to be incurred may be used to cover up deficits elsewhere- so this would be the first time in the history of the municipality or county where these entities no longer have to be run in deficit mode. Municipal and county politicians may decide that instead of shifting money to other needed city services, they would do the responsible thing and balance the city or county budget.

Alternatively, there may not be any money to realistically reappropriate. The current COVID-19 crisis has meant that city retail sales tax revenue has decreased, some businesses that pay taxes have gone bankrupt, and that increased tax-payer dollars have been spent on city services such as testing, fire and ambulance services, not to mention overtime expenditures for public safety responding to the protests in connection with the death of George Floyd.

Let’s say, however, that defunding leaves a real pot of money to spend. Where exactly will it be spent? Indeed, you might argue that it is now up to the police and public safety activists to insure that their elected officials allocate the money in the manner that advances the cause of racial and social justice, but this is not a given. For this to occur, activists and others must consult a city budget or spread sheet and demand that appropriate intensive process and outcome evaluations be done on these prosocial programs and services that they champion. At first glance, those wanting change might not have the tool kit to carry this to the end, although of course they can ally with folks who can.

Moreover, right now I’m confident that well-meaning (and some fly by night operators) are lining up at the doors (virtually) of countless municipal and county executives trying to convince them to fund largely non-evidence based pet projects. Some of these programs will be based on empirically tested social scientific research, while others will be chosen because of their originators best hopes and dreams.

Finally, few activists and commentators have mentioned the long and recent history of municipal corruption that has plagued the United States. Cities such as Baltimore, Detroit, New Orleans, and New York, for example, have been epicenters for this kind of activity. It is also possible that the money will be spent on projects that financially benefit municipal and county executives, including their families and friends, through no bid contracts, and sham organizations.

These are sobering possibilities that must be taken into consideration alongside efforts to defund the police if meaningful change is expected.

It’s great that there is now an increased sense of purpose to reexamine how much money we spend on policing, and how it has not produced the outcomes we desire.

It’s also helpful to examine where our tax dollars go, but also to be careful of what you ask for, as you may end up getting it.