Kevin Johnson and Kristine Phillips, USA Today, July 31, 2020
Facing the dual forces of the coronavirus pandemic and the national movement to “defund the police,” law enforcement agencies across the country are bracing for budget reductions not seen in more than a decade.
Nearly half of 258 agencies surveyed this month are reporting that funding has already been slashed or is expected to be reduced, according to a report slated for release this week by the Police Executive Research Forum, a non-partisan research organization.
Much of the funding is being pulled from equipment, hiring and training accounts, even as a number of cities also are tracking abrupt spikes in violent crime, the report concluded.
Few agencies, regardless of size, are being spared. Deep reductions have been ordered or proposed in Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, Baltimore County, Maryland, Tempe, Arizona, and Eureka, California.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the D.C.-based think tank that authored the report, said police operations have not confronted such a threat since the financial crisis of 2008, when operations and force numbers were cut dramatically to account for the steep decline in available public funds.
“Unfortunately, the situation this time is only certain to get worse because of the pandemic’s resurgence and the convergence of the defund police movement,” Wexler said. “It’s a combustible mixture for police departments, because reform is often achieved by hiring a next generation of officers and acquiring new technology that can assist their work. The unintended consequence of these times is that those reforms will now be held back.”
The first shock waves rippled through law enforcement this month when New York municipal officials slashed $1 billion from the largest police force in the country with an operating budget of about $6 billion. The cut effectively canceled a 1,200-person police recruiting class, curtailed overtime spending and shifted school safety deployments and homeless outreach away from the NYPD.
In Minneapolis, where the de-fund movement began following the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of police, the fate of the local force remains in doubt. Los Angeles has cut its police budget by $150 million, while Seattle has proposed a 50% reduction to a department that has struggled to contain protests that erupted following Floyd’s death.
In Steamboat Springs, a ski-resort town in northwest Colorado largely supported by tourism-driven sales tax dollars, the police department is cutting its budget by 28% or nearly $1.5 million. It means that vacant positions will go unfilled and civilian employees are taking a 10% pay cut, Police Chief Cory Christensen said.
The police department’s training and recruiting budgets already have been zeroed out.
Christensen was able to hire a few officers in the last three years, but the police force has barely kept pace with the town’s growing population – up from 3,000 to 13,000 in the last two decades. The police department now has 44 employees, a slight increase over the past 20 years.
At the same time, calls for service are up 23% from last year, the busiest year in Christensen’s memory.
In Eureka, a Northern California town of nearly 27,000 where sales taxes are also the primary source of revenue, the pandemic is responsible for doubling an already projected deficit for the next budget year, Police Chief Steve Watson said.
The police department is cutting its budget by 8%, or nearly $1.2 million. That means losing six positions through a combination of early retirement incentives, resignations and allowing vacant positions to go unfilled, Watson said. The agency currently has about 50 employees, a staffing level that already struggles to keep up with the workload.
For the first time in five years, and largely propelled by the recent budget cuts, the police force in Los Angeles will fall below 10,000 officers. Chief Moore said the department had struggled for years to keep its numbers up, and breaking the 10,000-officer mark had been a source of internal pride.
The $150 million moved from the police budget this year, however, will require accepting more than a smaller number. Moore calls it “a new normal.”
Another problem thrown into this year’s complicated mix: homicides have been ticking up. There have been 169 murders so far this year, compared to 153 at same time last year in the city. The numbers have prompted Moore to reach out to federal authorities for assistance in gun violence investigations.
In Seattle, Police Chief Carmen Best said a city council proposal for a 50% cut to the force lacks any plan for how or who would be left to respond to the 800,000 calls for service each year.
“I haven’t seen a plan, and I have to deal with legitimate calls for service,” Best said. “It’s a detriment to public safety; it’s reckless and dangerous.”