Police departments have enormous budgets. Are we getting what we pay for?
City and state balance sheets are in serious trouble after the pandemic-induced economic slowdown. As local governments are making decisions about budget cuts, some protesters have a suggestion: defund the police.
The sociologist Alex Vitale, the author of The End of Policing, joins Atlantic staff writer James Hamblin and executive producer Katherine Wells to explain the research and nuance behind the idea, on the podcast Social Distance.
Listen to the episode here:
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What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of their conversation.
Katherine Wells: I’m just going to lay the groundwork for our conversation: About half of state revenues come from sales tax. And we know that, because of the pandemic and all of these closures, state revenues are way down. State and city governments typically have to have balanced budgets. They’re going to have to find a lot of stuff to cut. The thing that almost never gets cut in moments like these is police budgets. Police budgets are massive. A lot of these are proposed budgets, so just keep that in mind: The Oakland Police Department receives nearly half of the city’s discretionary spending. That is more than human services, parks and recreation, and transportation combined. Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed, passed its budget in December, and it increased its budget for police by $10 million to a total of $193 million. Here’s what they’re spending on other things: $31 million for affordable housing; $250,000 for community organizations working with at-risk youth; $400,000 for the Office of Crime Prevention.