Cities May Have No Choice But to Defund the Police

By creating state budget crises amid nationwide protests, Mitch McConnell may be accelerating cuts to local police departments.

An illustration of Mitch McConnell
Getty / The Atlantic

On a modest scale, police defunding is happening. For years, powerful police unions have made law-enforcement funding all but untouchable. As The New York Times noted in 2018, the number of police per capita has risen over the past three decades even as crime rates have plunged. Last week, however, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that he would shave at least $100 million from his city’s law-enforcement budget. On Sunday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared he would cut police funding too. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has said he’s considering a similar move. In Milwaukee and Portland, Oregon, school districts have diverted funds used to pay police into other programs.

The main instigator for these changes, of course, is the protest movement sparked by the police killings of George Floyd and other African Americans. In their efforts to reduce law-enforcement budgets, however, the protesters have an unlikely ally: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. By spurning congressional Democrats’ efforts to dispatch additional aid to state and local governments, McConnell is enabling budgetary crises in city after city. These crises, in turn, are making well-funded police departments an easier target.

Police budgets are mostly paid by local governments. And for local governments, COVID-19 has been a fiscal catastrophe. Local governments fund themselves through a combination of property taxes, sales taxes, income taxes, special taxes (on the occupants of hotels, for instance), and aid from states. By slashing consumer spending, the pandemic has slashed sales-tax revenue. The collapse of tourism has decimated special taxes paid by the hospitality industry, and job losses have reduced revenue from income taxes. Moreover, states—which face their own budgetary shortfalls—are likely to cut local aid. The result, according to the National League of Cities, is that from now until 2022, cities collectively face a budgetary hole of $360 billion.

On May 15, House Democrats responded by passing the HEROES Act, which would have allocated close to $1 trillion to state, local, and tribal governments—$375 billion of which would have gone to cities and counties. Because most states and many cities start their fiscal year on July 1, that cash might have helped local governments stave off major budget cuts.

Senate Republicans, however, oppose another large infusion of federal funds anytime soon. In April, McConnell suggested that states respond to their fiscal woes by declaring bankruptcy. Earlier this month, Chuck Grassley, the Republican chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, cited a better-than-expected May jobs report as evidence that Congress should “not rush to pass expensive legislation paid for with more debt.”

That means many cities must make large cuts soon. Budget crises alone may not have led to lower police funding, and protests alone may not have, either. But they form a potent combination.

In Los Angeles, for example, a sharp decline in revenue from occupancy, sales, and business taxes prompted Garcetti to declare “a state of fiscal emergency.” Even as he announced furloughs that could cost some state workers 10 percent of their salary, along with budget cuts to housing and jobs programs of roughly 9 percent, the police budget was still slated to rise.

The massive protests surrounding Floyd’s killing made that proposal untenable. “It’s absolutely a zero-sum game,” Melina Abdullah, a professor of pan-African studies at California State University, Los Angeles, and a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, told Los Angeles Magazine. “Every dollar [Garcetti] is spending on police, he’s choosing not to spend those dollars on things that make communities safe.” A city councilman, David Ryu, declared it “unacceptable” that “the first thing we cut in this budget was social services.”

On June 3, City Council President Nury Martinez and two other council members called for cutting the police budget by $100 to $150 million. Garcetti embraced the idea hours later. It’s possible that the protests would have forced him to do so even if L.A. had received an infusion of federal aid. But local Black Lives Matter activists had been urging cuts to the LAPD for years—to no avail. The absence of money from Washington made the city’s budgetary trade-offs starker, which made sparing the LAPD harder to sustain.

Something similar happened in New York. Over the next year, the city faces a $9 billion shortfall, which will likely grow larger as the state reduces local aid. De Blasio initially responded by proposing to borrow money and make substantial cuts in social services, including education, while leaving the NYPD almost untouched.

As in L.A., activists associated with Black Lives Matter have long called for reducing New York’s police budget. But the city’s fiscal crisis has given them a new rationale. In late April, community organizations wrote de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson a letter saying they were “alarmed by cuts in the proposed FY2021 executive budget—while the NYPD’s budget seems largely untouched.” On May 30, Johnson sent a letter to de Blasio himself declaring that the discrepancy between the mayor’s “32 percent proposed cut at the Department of Youth and Community Development and the less than one percent cut proposed by the New York Police Department” does “not represent the values that we all hold dear.” A few days after that, City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who like Johnson is considered a probable mayoral contender, wrote his own letter decrying the discrepancy in de Blasio’s budget and demanding even larger cuts to the NYPD. Finally, on Sunday, de Blasio conceded that he would cut police spending by an unspecified amount.

The cuts de Blasio is likely to propose will be small—far from the radical shift in priorities that activists demand. But given that until recently, powerful politicians almost never proposed cutting police budgets, it’s still a striking change. For the past few years, progressives and conservatives have teamed up to reform harsh criminal-justice laws. The partnership that is fueling reduced police funding is different—it’s accidental. Still, it’s another sign that the old axioms of American politics no longer apply.