‘Perfect storm’: Defund the police, COVID-19 lead to biggest police budget cuts in decade

Facing the dual forces of the coronavirus pandemic and the national movement to “defund the police,” law enforcement agencies across the country are bracing for budget reductions not seen in more than a decade.

Nearly half of 258 agencies surveyed this month are reporting that funding has already been slashed or is expected to be reduced, according to a report slated for release this week by the Police Executive Research Forum, a non-partisan research organization.

Much of the funding is being pulled from equipment, hiring and training accounts, even as a number of cities also are tracking abrupt spikes in violent crime, the report concluded.

Few agencies, regardless of size, are being spared. Deep reductions have been ordered or proposed in Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, Baltimore County, Maryland, Tempe, Arizona, and Eureka, California.

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the D.C.-based think tank that authored the report, said police operations have not confronted such a threat since the financial crisis of 2008, when operations and force numbers were cut dramatically to account for the steep decline in available public funds.

“Unfortunately, the situation this time is only certain to get worse because of the pandemic’s resurgence and the convergence of the defund police movement,” Wexler said. “It’s a combustible mixture for police departments, because reform is often achieved by hiring a next generation of officers and acquiring new technology that can assist their work. The unintended consequence of these times is that those reforms will now be held back.”

But Scott Roberts, senior director for criminal justice campaigns for the civil rights advocacy group Color of Change, said law enforcement has been “the most out of touch” in recognizing a need for new policing policy.

“The lack of imagination in public safety has only led to continuing down the same path to investing in more law enforcement,” Roberts said. “This call for defunding police is not just about taking money from policing, it’s about making the investments we need to make in things like health care, including mental illness.”

The first shock waves rippled through law enforcement this month when New York municipal officials slashed $1 billion from the largest police force in the country with an operating budget of about $6 billion. The cut effectively canceled a 1,200-person police recruiting class, curtailed overtime spending and shifted school safety deployments and homeless outreach away from the NYPD.

In Minneapolis, where the de-fund movement began following the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of police, the fate of the local force remains in doubt. Los Angeles has cut its police budget by $150 million, while Seattle has proposed a 50% reduction to a department that has struggled to contain protests that erupted following Floyd’s death.

“There are a lot of pressures dragging down and threatening levels of public safety,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore said. “It’s really a perfect storm.”

‘A recruiting, retention crisis’

Even smaller cities facing less pressure from the social justice movement have not been able to escape an unfolding financial crisis driven by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Steamboat Springs, a ski-resort town in northwest Colorado largely supported by tourism-driven sales tax dollars, the police department is cutting its budget by 28% or nearly $1.5 million. It means that vacant positions will go unfilled and civilian employees are taking a 10% pay cut, Police Chief Cory Christensen said.

The police department’s training and recruiting budgets already have been zeroed out.

“At a time when we’re talking police reform and how to make police departments better, one of the strategies is having training. But not having funding for that, we will fall behind in making sure we’re up to par with best practices,” Christensen said, adding that the department has yet to meet state-mandated training hours.

Christensen was able to hire a few officers in the last three years, but the police force has barely kept pace with the town’s growing population – up from 3,000 to 13,000 in the last two decades. The police department now has 44 employees, a slight increase over the past 20 years.

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