“Defund the police” has become the new rallying cry from the left. They claim that police are a part of a systematically unjust society and that the only way to break that system is to defund it. In a sense, this is a more extreme version of the often-made claim that the reason we experience problems in our society is that government spends too much money on law enforcement and too little on social services.
Do the actual budget numbers support these arguments? Let’s look at a few examples from here in Iowa. The largest single category of spending in the state budget is aid to schools. Last fiscal year the state spent over $4.1 billion to support education. This does not include the $2.3 billion that local schools receive from property taxes. The next largest area in the state budget is human services. This $1.8 billion appropriation funds health care to the poor, the protection of children from neglect and abuse, and many other social services. In comparison, the state budget allocated $500 million for corrections and law enforcement services.
Of course, there are expenditures at the local level on law enforcement and social services too. Cities and counties spent $1.5 billion for police protection, jails, and prosecution. But they also spent $345 million on social services, primarily for mental health care for the poor.
The final numbers tell the story. At all levels of government, Iowans paid $8.5 billion for education, health care, and social services. They paid $2.0 billion for public safety. Another way to think about this: a 50% reduction in law enforcement would only fund a 12% increase in education, health care, and other social services. Defunding the police does not seem like the way to substantially increase spending on other priorities.
What are the costs of defunding the police? Most Iowans understand intuitively that reducing law enforcement, jail, and prosecution services would have some effects. Consider the aftermath of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. There was widespread social unrest and violence in many American cities and law enforcement agencies were under extreme pressure to stand down in the face of violence. According to a recent study, the reduced police presence in major cities led to approximately 710 additional homicides during June and July of 2020.
These extra deaths tell a tiny fraction of the costs of defunding the police. Each is a tragedy experienced by a family. No one can truly measure the harm to society from crime victimization. Studies of fatal crimes, for example, estimate a murder costs the victim’s family and society from $1.4 million to $13 million per case. One thing should be obvious: we can’t understand the whole story by simply shifting funds from law enforcement to social services. There will be unintended costs. These additional costs would fall on taxpayers, businesses, and consumers. The arguments to defund the police do not advocate reducing the overall cost of government, and logic indicates it would increase that cost, or, at best, shift it to the private sector.
This is not to say that reforms should not be examined. It may well be that there are more efficient and effective ways to deliver public safety. And it may be time to remove barriers to reform such as antiquated laws controlling how law enforcement officers are hired, trained, and disciplined. But “defund the police” doesn’t capture these complexities. And it certainly doesn’t recognize that we have already, as a society, reflected our priorities towards education, health, and other social services.
Alan Ostergren is a Contributing Scholar to TEF Iowa, a public policy think tank. Alan is also President of Kirkwood Institute, a non-profit, strategic litigation law firm in West Des Moines, Iowa, as well as an attorney in private practice. Previously he served as County Attorney for Muscatine County, Iowa