America’s police — the third rail

April 3, 2014

For decades, conventional wisdom has said that federal entitlement programs are the third rail of national politics. Any politician advocating reductions would be penalized at the election booth.

Many vital entitlement programs like the Social Security disability program are nearly broke, but no one discusses how to reform them to make them sustainable. Similarly, at the local level, spending on police has put massive pressure on budgets. But it would be political suicide for a politician to advocate reform.

Violent and property crime rates have dropped in America, but spending on police has soared since the 1990’s. According to a 2012 Justice Policy Institute report, the declining violent crime and property arrests have been replaced with drug arrests:

The Justice Policy Institute report breaks it down further:

Although crime rates are at the lowest they have been in over 30 years, the number of arrests has declined only slightly between 2009 and 2010 and the U.S. still spends more than $100 billion on police every year. This money goes to fund 714,921 sworn police officers and an increasing number of militarized police units.

The $100 billion of annual spending on police has lead America to have the highest incarceration rate in the world. As of 2009, the incarceration rate was 743 per 100,000 of population (0.743 percent). While the United States represents about 5 percent of the world’s population, it houses around 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Large increases in police spending have propelled the incarceration rate (Justice Policy Institute report):

The Justice Policy Institute points out that spending on police crowds out other vital community spending that could maintain stable communities:

The combined numbers of police, encouraged by federal funding and aggressive policing, are representative of a continued misguided approach to keeping communities safe. Because the Department of Justice considers ‘successful law enforcement policies’ as those that increase the number of people arrested and imprisoned, governments are shortchanging the public in regards to public safety at a very high cost.

Many social problems, especially mental health issues, cannot be addressed through arrests and incarceration. JCP again:

Policymakers should be directing funds toward true community-based and collaborative policing efforts, prevention, intervention, treatment, education and a host of other programs and initiatives that have been shown to promote healthy safe communities. When arrests are the bottom line instead of public safety and healthy, prosperous communities, our priorities are skewed.

We are crowding out important social spending in order to support an increasing burden of spending on law enforcement.

High salaries drive the spending. The International City/County Management Association (ICMA) published its 2013 Police and Fire Personnel and Expenditures Survey Summary, which details average police salaries across the country:

Meanwhile, the Social Security national average wage index for all employment categories in 2012 was $44,321. This is slightly below the minimum average salary for a police officer. Police also have rich pension benefits that almost no other American employee enjoys.

Police compensation is almost always controlled through union negotiations with local governments. It poses a difficult challenge for local officials to make changes. For example the bankrupt city of San Bernardino, California pays crushing police salaries, but it is restricted by a city charter to make any reductions.

Police pension costs have become an enormous burden for many local governments. High average salaries and retirements as early as 52 for some police employees have created massive pension liabilities for governments, including the recently bankrupt city of Vallejo in California.

Although the majority of police are law abiding, an increasing number of police brutality lawsuits have created costly legal settlements for many cities. For example, the Chicago Tribune reported that the city would use some of the proceeds of a recent general obligation bond issue to pay legal settlements related to police misconduct:

[T]he city would take on between $90 million and $100 million in debt to pay off legal settlements made last year. The bulk of those settlements were made in connection with police misconduct cases.

The Cato Institute’s National Police Misconduct Reporting Project estimated that $346 million was spent in 2010 on misconduct-related civil judgments and settlements, excluding sealed settlements, court costs, and attorney fees. The amount of sealed judgments could have been substantial, but taxpayers have no way of knowing.

In a healthy society, all institutions must be examined to determine if their mission and practices serve the needs of the people. Police in America have been the third rail; mostly immune from review and reform. It’s long past time for America to grapple with the difficult question of how much policing we need to maintain a safe and stable society and how much of our scarce financial resources can be spent while shortchanging other community services.


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> As spending on police increased 445%, the number of people in prisons and jails increased 275% from 1982 to 2007.

The spending in the chart does not seem to be adjusted for inflation, which in the same period was about cumulative 115%. For the sake of example, let’s assume that the spending in 1982 was about $19B. This means that in 2007, it was about $104B. But that $104B was equivalent to only $48B in 1982 dollars, which is a 153% increase. So, the rate of incarceration per *real* dollar spent actually increased by about 80% (275/153 – 1).

We can debate whether a high incarceration rate for drug-related offenses is right or wrong, but first you need to present correct inflation-adjusted data.

Posted by CraigL | Report as abusive

The biggest supporters of drug laws are the police and prison guard unions. We imprison black people as a jobs program.

Posted by nixonfan | Report as abusive

Thanks for pointing that out CraigL. I should get in touch with the Justice Policy Institute and feed that back to them.

Posted by Cate_Long | Report as abusive

Spring means budget season for local governments across the United States, and Steve Novick, a city commissioner in Portland, Oregon, has a proposal he thinks could save his city a nice chunk of change: slashing funding for the Portland Police Bureau’s Drugs and Vice Division. The division, which largely targets drug dealers, costs $3.9 million annually to operate, and Novick’s idea is to redirect a substantial portion of that budget to improving dangerous intersections where pedestrians are killed each year, as well as to better preparing the city for disasters—particularly the big earthquake that could strike Portland any day now.

“I noticed that we’re spending about $4 million a year on the drugs and vice unit,” says Novick. “And there seems to be a lot of evidence that pursuing drug dealers is kind of a losing battle, because you arrest one and another pops up.” t-if-us-cities-just-stopped-participatin g-in-the-war-on-drugs/370878/

Posted by Cate_Long | Report as abusive