Spending So Much on Police Has Real Downsides

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(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The question of policing will always bedevil a civil society. Policing is an essential means of reducing violence; in a state of anarchy, citizens will be forced to resort to taking personal security into their own hands, resulting in chaos and endemic violence. But ensuring that the police don’t become a criminal force unto themselves, victimizing the people they’re meant to protect, is a difficult task. As the Roman poet Juvenal memorably put it: Who will guard the guardians?

The U.S. is now painfully confronting this question. The brutal killing of black Minneapolis man George Floyd by white police officer Derek Chauvin has sparked an unprecedented wave of protests across the entire nation, many of them violent. The protesters, which enjoy broad popular support, are demanding an end to racism in policing, curbs on police brutality, and a general reduction in funding and power for police departments.

But beyond this specific incident looms the larger question of policing in the U.S. There are no shortage of strategies that have proven to reduce police brutality -- for example, hiring more diverse forces, making it easier to sue the police for misconduct, making it easier to fire bad officers and reducing police access to military gear and weapons.

And then there’s the question of economic measures. As evidenced by signs reading “defund the police,” many protesters (and some academics) want to see cities reduce the amount of money that state and local governments spend on law enforcement.

It’s certainly true that the U.S. spends more on cops than it used to. State and local spending on police represents about 0.67% of the nation’s economy -- much higher than in the early 1960s:

Spending So Much on Police Has Real Downsides

The official spending figures probably understate municipal and state expenditures on police because many of them have unfunded pension liabilities.

Some of this increase is probably driven simply by a general increase in government expenditure; the percent of state and local government spending dedicated to police is fairly steady at between 4% and 5%. As budgets have gone up, police have consistently managed to take their cut:

Spending So Much on Police Has Real Downsides

But there’s no fundamental reason that police spending should rise along with spending on things like infrastructure and education. Instead, it should be driven by an underlying need. Although many cities allocate large percentages of their general funds to policing, this spending often bears little obvious relationship to actual rates of violent crime:

Spending So Much on Police Has Real Downsides

Economists Aaron Chalfin and Justin McCrary, meanwhile, find that annual increases in city-level police hiring are largely uncorrelated with changes in crime during the past year. This suggests that many cities are spending money on police for political reasons rather than practical ones.

Furthermore, the U.S. has experienced an enormous drop in crime during the past three decades. Murder rates are down by half since 1993. Violent crime has fallen by somewhere between 50% and 70%, depending on the survey used. Property crime has dropped by a similar amount. One might expect spending on cops to fall, now that the U.S. has become a much more law-abiding place -- just as military spending fell after the end of the Cold War. But it hasn’t happened. The cause might be pure inertia, or political capture of local and state governments.

Does this mean that police spending is useless and all cities should defund the cops? No, and much research has shown that increased numbers of police tend to reduce crime on average. This has to be weighed against the cost of police violence -- even with all of the proven anti-brutality strategies mentioned above, more cops on the street, all else equal, will probably mean more opportunities for violent abuses. But cities with high crime rates may decide the tradeoff is worth it.

But spending on cops shouldn’t be sustained by the political power of police themselves. Powerful police unions, in addition to making it harder to punish cops for misconduct, have the potential ability to hold city governments hostage, threatening to remove citizens’ security unless hiring or pensions are increased. That asymmetry of power between the citizens and the people tasked with protecting them can decouple spending on police from the underlying need.

A solution is to limit collective bargaining for police, making it much harder -- if not impossible -- for them to go on strike. Not only would this help reduce brutality and hold cops more accountable, but it would weaken the political factors affecting how much a city spends on law enforcement. It would allow cities that would prefer to instead beef up spending on health, education and social programs to do so without fear of a police strike.

Although stronger unions in general would be good for the U.S., police (perhaps along with teachers) unions are an exception. The cops already have enough physical and economic power over the citizenry without the added power afforded by the threat of strikes.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.

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