Four Myths About Police Budgets

This is a repost of my newsletter, The Civic Pulse, which I am crossposting to the blog. If you like the newsletter, subscribe here:

Friends and Colleagues,

Public opinion has shifted incredibly quickly in support of a reimagining of policing in the United States. The hard work of translating that public opinion into policy change is next. Many cities have just completed their spring budget cycle (another wave of cities will be doing budgets in September and October) and some modest changes to American policing have been made.

In this issue of the Civic Pulse I want to share some of what I’ve learned doing reviews of police budgets for grassroots police defund campaigns in 12 cities this past month. I also want to update you on the education projects we have going at Civilytics and the outlook for the rest of 2020.

Let’s begin with four myths about police department budgets that must be addressed to unlock real change in our cities:

  1. Union contracts prohibit cities from cutting police jobs
  2. Police departments are mostly funded by state and federal grants
  3. Police budgets are filled with expensive equipment
  4. Police officer compensation is low

Union Contracts

Police unions are among the most powerful unions in the U.S. They’ve used their negotiating power to win big victories like severely restricting disciplinary actions against officers, limiting public access to disciplinary records, and enforcing qualified immunity. But, perhaps their greatest victory has been in constructing the perception that police unions have created that their contracts preclude cities from cutting police officer jobs. In nearly every city I have worked with, city council members have asked if cutting police jobs was even legal under the city’s collective bargaining agreement with the police department.

That is power.

It’s a complete myth too! Here’s a sample clause of the language in the union contract for the Seattle Police Department and the City of Seattle. Article 15 states the rights of the Management (city hall):

“15.4 – Employer reserves the right… C) To determine methods, means, and personnel necessary for departmental operations; D.) To control the departmental budget… F). To take whatever actions are necessary in emergencies in order to assure the proper functioning of the department…” (p.67-68 in text, PDF page 72-73)

Cities must have clauses like these to be able to borrow money. City borrowing depends on creditors being confident that, if the city experiences a fiscal downturn, it can always cut costs and raise taxes to meet its debt obligations.

It may be politically difficult to cut police jobs, but it is not illegal.

State and Federal Money

Another common misperception is that police budgets cannot be significantly shrunk in major cities because most of their funding is from restricted grant funds from their state and the federal governments. This is so far from the truth! Almost all police department funding is in the form of unrestricted tax revenues (author’s calculation 2020).

When city police departments do have restricted funds, it is commonly for 911 service charges (most cities have the police department operate their 911 call center) or for a public airport. Departments do receive state and federal grants for specific purposes, but these often add up to less than 10% of their total budget. Federal law enforcement is active in most American cities, but its collaboration with local police departments is usually outside of the budget and less transparent to the public.

Officer Compensation

Another myth is that officers are poorly compensated. While rural departments may not pay their officers well, being a police officer in a major American city is a fairly compensated job. Police officers often have starting salaries higher than teachers, and almost always higher than childcare workers.

What’s more: police officer compensation reaches far beyond salary. Officers receive other forms of cash compensation like OT and detail work (extra shifts at construction sites and large events) which are spread throughout the budget. These really add up – in Boston, some officers made over $300,000 last year. That’s a lot of cheddah – even here.

Additionally, non-cash benefits like pension plans, sick leave, administrative leave, and healthcare are often more generous for police than for other city employees. In all, 80 to 90% of the cost of a police department to a city is employee compensation, and sworn law enforcement officers cost 20-40% more than a comparably trained civilian employee of the city ​(Goodman 2019)​.​*​

It is true that, in many rural parts of the country, police officers are poorly paid, poorly trained, and poorly treated. But, in cities with more than 200,000 residents, that’s generally not the case.


Photo by Richard Tsong-Taatarii •

Police equipment gets the headlines, for good reason. Equipment is highly visible and the image of a police officer firing gas canisters or driving a military-grade assault vehicle jars our sensibilities.

Police departments get much of their equipment free via the military or through private donation and gifts. The small portion of a police department budget that is devoted to equipment is largely spent on things much more mundane than MRAP vehicles or tear gas canisters – it is often spent on cars and computers. Taking equipment out of the police budget may be important for symbolic reasons, but it won’t structurally change the nature of policing and it won’t free up funding for cities to reimagine public safety with policing alternatives. That doesn’t mean taking away equipment is unimportant, just that’s it’s a small part of the budget story.

Police Abolition Reads

If this all sounds a little small government, Grover Norquist that is not my intention. Everyone who knows me knows that I think we should have government services, that their workers should be paid well, and that unions essential to the well-being of middle-class workers. But these myths are real barriers to politicians making the changes we need to move to a new and better future – a future where safety is created in ways that everyone benefits from.

My next newsletter will tackle what some of those new and better uses of funds could be.

In the meantime, here are some of the best things I have been reading about police abolition this week:

From Derecka Purnell: a powerful and moving piece on what police meant growing up in East St. Louis and her personal journey to abolition.

From New York Magazine, a look at opinion polling around police reforms in the U.S. showing public resistance to police divestment. As you read it, remember that MLK died with a 75% disapproval rating and rarely had approval above 50% of the U.S. population in his time.

Changing public opinion is part of what this newsletter is about these days. One way to do that is to learn about the historical development of police budgets. This article by Olivia Paschal is an excellent analysis of a dataset that I use all the time to understand long-term trends in civic budgets.

Finally, a look at how criminologists are measuring crime rates and thinking about crime during COVID-19. It includes a discussion on the limits of crime rates as measures of safety.

I’ve had great feedback from so many of you about how you are getting involved. And I am learning more every day about places you can go to find out how to help in your town. Here’s a map you can use to identify grassroots organizations that need your support near you, made by the Community Resource Hub.

Education Work

Some of you may be wondering with all this talk of policing and budgets, is Civilytics still working on education projects? The answer is yes, we’re busier than ever! The past few months I’ve been doing a lot of virtual training. I took a few moments to write up what I’ve learned from that work and my unique approach. If you’re interested in professional development and training, take a look.

I’ve also been doing a lot of enrollment forecasting work for colleges and universities. Enrollment forecasting is more important than ever, but also more uncertain than ever. I’ve written some thoughts on how data analysts can help ground conversations around future planning, even in an environment where there is no historical precedent (and no data) to work from. I’ll be publishing those on the blog very soon.

In Memoriam

On a final personal note, my grandmother passed away at the age of 87 last week. I was unable to travel to Montana to be with her or my family due to the pandemic. My grandma was a tough independent woman and very political: a proud anti-war, pro-union, pro-marijuana Democrat in a deeply Republican city and state. I know she believed that the only way to get democracy back was to take it. She’d have marched in the streets this past month if there were marches in her city and if her health had allowed. I’m proud of that. And, I know I do what I do because of the values she passed down to my mother (hi Mom!) and to me.

Please be kind to one another and stay safe out there.

With gratitude,


  1. ​*​
    This range comes from efficiency studies of police departments that I have read in the course of analyzing PD budgets. An example is cited here.
  1. Goodman, Matt. 2019. “You Can Now Read KPMG’s Long Awaited Study on Dallas PD’s Staffing Levels.” D Magazine. August 23.

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