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Spending billions on policing, then millions on police misconduct

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Spending billions on policing, then millions on police misconduct

Spotlights like this one provide original commentary and analysis on pressing criminal justice issues of the day. You can read them each day in our newsletter, The Daily Appeal.

In 2017, the coalition Freedom to Thrive looked at the enormous outlay on policing and incarceration across the U.S.—over $180 billion annually—contrasting it with the systemic underinvestment in marginalized communities. The report celebrated the work of invest-divest campaigns which advocate for “investments in supportive services and divestment from punitive institutions.” It pointed to the importance of processes like participatory budgeting, which gives communities a voice in local funding decisions.

Kumar Rao of the Center for Popular Democracy was one of the authors of the report. “As a nation we’re spending over $100 billion a year on policing and the vast bulk of that is actually at the local level,” he told The Appeal in June. “In cities, the single largest allocation of resources is going to the police department. … No place has unlimited resources and there are tradeoffs involved in that kind of expenditure on policing. It means less investment in the things that keep communities safe.”

Nor do policing budgets reflect the entirety of policing-related expenditure. Gothamist reported Tuesday that New York City, with a policing budget over $5 billion, has also already spent nearly $40 million on police misconduct settlements this year. That amount does not include settlements of claims for which no lawsuit was even filed. According to the Chicago Reporter, the city of Chicago spent more over $100 million on lawsuit settlements in 2018. In Los Angeles, the city paid out a total of $880 million in settlements between 2005 and 2018; the police department, at more than 40 percent, was the largest contributor to that total.

These high settlement costs are the result of high levels of police abuse. Cities should be paying people who suffer abuse at the hands of the police and families who lose their loved ones. Payments to the families of Eric Garner or Kalief Browder in New York were necessary though, of course, deeply insufficient.

The issue is not the cost of settlements but the policing that leads to them. Most settlements are in the thousands, rather than the millions. Given the criminal legal system’s unwillingness to hold police accountable, these settlements are often the only form of acknowledgment victims will receive. And people who receive settlements are only a tiny fraction of police misconduct victims. Most lack the resources, wherewithal, and willingness to sue.

The issue is with the continued investment in agencies that seem ill-equipped to deliver safety and continue to inflict violence.

Recently, jurisdictions have been resisting the pressure to add to law enforcement budgets. In St. Paul, Minnesota, last year, Mayor Melvin Carter rejected a request for 50 new police officers. In a statement explaining his decision, he wrote: “The philosophy that more police officers, tougher prosecutors and bigger jails equal a safer city has failed. Our driving goal shouldn’t be to hire as many officers as possible but to reduce the number of times we have to call police in the first place. The City currently spends three times more on police and fire services than on recreation centers and libraries. As long as we focus more on responding to emergencies than on preventing them in the first place, we’ll never have enough police officers.”

In February, commissioners in Harris County, Texas, voted against funding 102 new prosecutors, as requested by District Attorney Kim Ogg.

In June, the City Council in Durham, North Carolina, voted against funding 18 new police officers at an added cost of $1.2 million a year. It voted instead to raise the wage for part-time city workers to just over $15 an hour.

Jillian Johnson, mayor pro tempore, speaking with The Appeal a few days after that vote, explained the City Council’s reasoning. “We’re not interested in increasing policing without some strong evidence that it’s what will make us safer as a community and that evidence doesn’t exist,” she said.

There is also the argument that when police engage in misconduct, the money for settlements should come, if not from individual officers, then at least out of policing budgets. Jonathan Ben-Menachem made this argument with respect to Chicago in The Appeal recently. The city spent $113 million on police misconduct settlements in 2018. The response, Ben-Menachem wrote, in a city struggling with a deficit and looming pension contributions, should be to “reduce the department’s budget by $113 million in 2020 to match the city’s losses because of police misconduct in 2018.”

“Better yet,” he wrote, Mayor Lori Lightfoot “could make that budgetary reduction permanent. At a roughly $1.5 billion annual expenditure—approaching 40 percent of Chicago’s general fund and 18 percent of its total budget—Chicago has one of the best-funded police departments in the country. For every $1 the city spends on policing, it spends just 6 cents on the Department of Family and Support Services and 12 cents on the Department of Planning and Development.”

Ben-Menachem’s argument echoes the recommendations of Campaign Zero, an effort launched in 2015 to end police violence. The campaign’s website says, “Police should be working to keep people safe, not contributing to a system that profits from stopping, searching, ticketing, arresting and incarcerating people.” It recommends two policy proposals to get there: require that misconduct settlements be paid out of the police department budget instead of cities’ general funds and restrict police departments from receiving more money from the general fund when they go over budget on lawsuit payments.

In 2016, Joanna Schwartz, a UCLA law professor and policing expert, took an in-depth look at 100 cities around the country to understand how lawsuits were paid. Schwartz found that even in jurisdictions where police were responsible for settlements, the payments came out of funds specifically allocated for that and could not be used for anything else. When settlement costs ran over what was allocated in police budgets, cities found money from elsewhere. Essentially, police gained no financial reward  for less misconduct, and suffered no financial penalty for more.