Police Departments Are Parasites on the Public Purse
By aggressively pushing for higher budgets and salaries, police officers have insulated themselves from accountability while draining resources from essential public programs. It’s long past time to defund them.
- Interview by
- Jonah Walters
In the weeks since the killing of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, Black Lives Matter protests have thrust the demand to defund the police into the national conversation.
Around the country, police budgets are so bloated as to be grotesque. New York City spends over $11 billion annually on its police force — more than the entire military budget of Colombia. While New York City’s police department is the most highly funded in the country, other cities also maintain exorbitant police budgets and allocate enormous percentages of their total public resources to do so. Los Angeles’s $1.8 billion police budget, for example, represents 17.5 percent of the city’s total annual spending.
As historian Stuart Schrader explains in the following interview, American police have been startlingly successful at claiming larger and larger pieces of the fiscal pie since the 1960s, even as nearly every other public agency has faced austerity.
Schrader, whose book Badges Without Borders analyzed the co-development of global counterinsurgency and American policing during the twentieth century, argues that police in the United States have developed into a self-interested social actor since the 1960s, helping eviscerate social spending by aggressively organizing to expand their own budgets. Through this kind of fiscal intimidation, Schrader writes in Public Culture, “police have come to protect neither party machines nor the legitimacy of the state but, rather, themselves.”
For generations, liberal police reformers have responded to calls for increased police accountability by allocating still more money to police budgets, oftentimes earmarked for gadgets like body cameras or feeble gestures like implicit-bias trainings.
In another paper — “More Than Cosmetic Changes,” published in the Journal of Urban History — Schrader analyzes the trajectory of police reform in the 1960s and ’70s, showing how some figures, like Menlo Park police chief Victor Cizanckas, attempted to restore police legitimacy through “demilitarization,” by eliminating the rank hierarchy and introducing “mod” uniforms that featured civilian-style blazers. But reformers like Cizanckas could never resolve the contradiction at the heart of policing: that police power is premised on the discretionary use of violence, and therefore cannot be effectively restrained by procedural reforms or technical changes.
Today, the demand is unequivocal: only aggressive defunding and reallocation of resources away from police can satisfy the movement in the street. Jacobin’s Jonah Walters spoke with Schrader about how the police have come to serve themselves and why protesters’ demands will not be easily quieted by compromise.
In your paper “To Protect and Serve Themselves,” you describe how American police came to understand themselves as a collective political actor, capable of acting in their own self-interest. You write, “The police of today might be best characterized not as partisan or professional, but as profiteering.” What does it mean for police to be self-interested, and how did this self-interest develop?
Historians of police in the United States tend to agree that there was a significant shift in police practice between the late nineteenth century and the mid-twentieth century. This is the shift toward professionalization.
Professionalization meant removing police from the political control of party machines and local power brokers. It was a slow process, but direct political control over police was mostly ended by the mid-twentieth century, and technical reforms were widely adopted. This shift in organization did not change the function of policing, in terms of securing private property, maintaining racial hierarchy, and weakening and suppressing working-class power, of course. If anything, it made it more effective and legitimate.
If the early period, when police served at the pleasure of political machines, was the “partisan” period, then the mid-twentieth century was the “professional” period. For the third period, which we’re living in now, I use the term “profiteering.” When it definitively began is fuzzy, but I would place it around the 1980s.
The “profiteering” period is marked by growing fiscal commitments in government budgets to police, while other agencies are facing austerity. Today, the effort to increase police legitimacy through professionalization is, I think, subsumed under a broader demand for spending commitments at federal, state, and local levels, as well as philanthropic spending on police. Police have become very good at achieving high budgets while hiding the fact that they are basically the only agency that has managed to avoid austerity.
I want to point out that “profiteering” is a bit of a misnomer. It’s not the case that state revenues or state expenditures are actually profits. (Ruth Wilson Gilmore is emphatic on this point.) I’m not saying that police are profiting in the sense that a capitalist firm profits. What I’m saying is that police have developed political efforts to reinforce their budgets, and they have become insatiable in their demand for robust appropriations. Both police unions and consortia of expert reformers, often at odds with each other, have come to support continued strong spending on policing.
Police have played a key role in eviscerating state capacity by making sure that their budgets remain high while other budgets get cut. There’s simply nowhere else for people to turn, so they call 911 and the police come, and far too often the result is something catastrophic.
Police are able to command an incredible amount of deference from elected officials. You write that police “wield respect like a pistol in a stickup.” Why is deference to the police such an ingrained political value in this country?
Public opinion of police legitimacy is in a mutually supportive relationship with police efforts to command support among the public. This dynamic distorts public perception of what police actually do and what policing actually looks like.
Part of this is because politicians have been arguing for more than fifty years that police deserve respect despite the abuses they commit. This is a consistent theme of political discourse, but it has intensified since 9/11. This expectation of unquestioned respect has trapped people like New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, even Barack Obama. Obama, for example, tried very meekly to register some discontent with policing, and he faced the full wrath of police, conservative media, and elected officials. That kind of bullying is real, and I don’t think we can discount it.
I think we also need to pay attention to the media sphere. Turn on the TV on any given night, and you can find multiple programs occurring simultaneously that lionize police as heroic protectors of society. One result of this kind of media is that people vastly overestimate how much violent, interpersonal crime there is and their own level of risk to it.
There is also a long trend of police gaining support from political officials who are willing to speak on their behalf. New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, who instigated a police riot in 1992 while David Dinkins was still mayor, is a primary symbol of this. I think that in the past four years of the Trump era, this trend has only intensified. Trump is picking up on something that figures like Giuliani (or maybe even somebody like Alabama governor George Wallace or Philadelphia mayor and former cop Frank Rizzo) pioneered earlier on.
I will say, though, that one accomplishment of the ongoing rebellions is that folks are learning just how much money police may earn (including through overtime pay) compared to what other civil servants earn. People are sharing charts that display how municipalities allocate resources. And many people are shocked at the disparities between police and parks, libraries, mental health, homeless services, and so on.
One thing that sets the ongoing rebellion apart from the 1960s, or even 2014–15, is how widely the demand to defund the police has been taken up. What kind of reformist period might we be headed into?
Change is happening, but the contours of the period we’re beginning are still indistinct. The situation is fluid, and mobilizations are ongoing. Think of Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey, who has tried to find a way to respond to the rebellion in his city without completely burning his administrative relationship with the police. It’s proving impossible for him, because he can’t respond to the demands of activists in the streets — who are asking for the police department to be dismantled and for that money to be redirected — in such a way that would mollify the police.
Protesters have forced a confrontation that, in many ways, cannot be reconciled through compromise. That’s why the city council in Minneapolis is now planning to disband the city police.
How this proposal is going to play out is a bit unclear. Many people are holding up the example of Camden, New Jersey. But we need to be very clear that, in Camden, the disbanding of the city police was not accompanied by reinvestment in the socioeconomic empowerment of marginalized residents, and thus fell far, far short of a solution.
We can’t separate the call to defund police from the call to redirect that money into other types of state capacities, up to and including jobs programs, and a decarceral Green New Deal. I worry that if we can’t make that positive demand alongside the negative one, what comes next is just more austerity. The powerful might concede to less spending on police, and then send that money right back into the hands of propertied taxpayers rather than into new expenditures on other types of services. Given the budgetary shortfalls that loom due to COVID-19 and the shutdowns, there is a real threat of new types of austerity.
Mutual aid programs developed during the pandemic will prove crucial in an ensuing moment of fiscal retrenchment, and I trust the creativity of those engaging in mutual aid to direct it toward creating a world without police.
One sticking point for liberal police reformers is the concept of “discretion.” What is “discretion,” and why is it important for understanding police power?
Policing is irreducibly defined by discretion because police have to act in the moment. Policing at its core is about discretionary improvisation on the street, in response to a whole variety of cues. The contradiction between rote procedure and unpredictable encounter is an ineradicable element of policing. It results in egregious — and often lethal — abuses of power.
Police departments have a strict military-style hierarchy, with chiefs at the top of the command issuing orders down the hierarchy, often pushed by property owners and other elites who have the ear of city hall. But the officers at the lowest rank have the most discretion, because they have to respond to unpredictable situations. This is the inverse of how militaries operate. It means that police officers overwhelmingly rely on personal intuition, often shaped by bigotry and machismo, in their encounters, and their intuition is protected, to a certain extent, as their professional prerogative. In this sense, policing, as an institution, is unique.
Discretion really hinders police reform, because most reforms are top-down attempts to standardize police behavior. The history of police reform since the 1960s has been marked by increasingly top-down demands for standardization. These reforms require a certain type of police response in every situation, like zero-tolerance policing: every infraction an officer witnesses is going to mean a ticket or an arrest.
In 2020, coming out of this rebellion, a lot of well-meaning people are going to be asking for the restoration of a certain type of discretion. There will be those who say that we need to “liberate” police from top-down standards, and give them the freedom to determine whether or not an incident really requires an arrest.
This is a pipe dream. Police should no longer be “first responders.” The history of liberal police reform during the twentieth century suggests that the only way to meaningfully change police behavior is to reduce police capacity.
We might be entering a moment similar to the 1960s, when there were different kinds of police reformers within the profession vying for their own reformist projects. What comes next for the movement to defund the police?
I think police scientists have been fairly discredited. Since at least the 1960s, we have been listening to them say, “Yes, there have been some misdeeds in the past, but the future is bright if you listen to us.” Well, when are we finally going to reach this juncture where their reforms finally take effect?
Still, I think we’re going to see these police scientists come back and propose more technical reforms, like additional new capital-intensive technologies: more body cameras, more computerized algorithmic tactical deployment plans, and more surveillance. We need to have a fairly uncompromising position on this. It’s important to remember that Minneapolis was actually a showcase of technical and procedural police reform (anti-bias training and so forth) before the murder of George Floyd.
Consciousness about policing in the United States is changing radically right now. That shift is reflected in the bill that Democrats in Congress have put forth, which does not add more money to police budgets. They’re calling for oversight without reward.
If you look at this historically, this is a surprising development. In the 1960s, the federal government provided money for police “innovation” with little oversight and few strings attached. In the 1980s and 1990s, the federal government continued to provide huge amounts of money, including direct funds to hire new police officers, without the imposition of oversight.
Now we have a bill that includes no new money for hiring police, but provisions for new oversight. This is a really dramatic change. It remains to be seen what will result from this proposed Democratic legislation, which, it must be said, could nevertheless have been far more sweeping.
When the next defense spending bill comes up, there must be pressure not only to shrink the Pentagon budget but to eliminate the so-called 1033 program that facilitates transfers of military surplus gear to police.
At the same time, numerous state and city legislators are rapidly introducing and passing new measures to regulate policing and increase transparency, many of which would have been unthinkable a month or two ago. Some concern the use of plastic/rubber bullets and tear gas, which absolutely should be radically restricted. Others ban “no-knock warrants,” which enabled the police killing of Breonna Taylor.
Still, individually, no single piece of legislation is enough, and many legislators remain too convinced of the benefits of procedural reform. But add up all of these individual ripples, and we are witnessing a tidal wave.
Popular sentiment is now oriented around a slogan of defunding the police, which is somewhat unprecedented. Credit must go to Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Mariame Kaba, who have been making these arguments consistently for decades. If this moment passes with no dramatic change, I believe we’re going to see another rebellion.
There’s no way to understand the rebellion of 2020 without understanding the five years since the last rebellions of 2014 and 2015 as evidence of reformists’ failures. People are fed up with incremental reformism. That’s worth taking seriously, even (or maybe especially) if you are a liberal reformer. The anger is real, and it is undeniable.