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The Insidious Nexus Between Law Enforcement Budget Increases and Misdemeanor Policing

by Casey J. Bastian

The murder of George Floyd in 2020 resulted in massive Black Lives Matter protests and vigorous calls to defund the police. Politicians across the country seemed to respond to those demands. Budgets were slashed, and cities reduced policing while implementing community-based alternatives. It appears the heat of that moment has passed, and police budgets are on the rise again. Many claim it is due to a rise in violent crime rates. It is unclear if the increase in police budgets will actually provide the “safety” that is ostensibly missing. What is clear is that misdemeanor arrests will increase and so too will all their pernicious side effects.

In March, President Biden proposed a new federal budget. This proposed budget included huge increases in law enforcement budgets. If Congress approves the budget, funding for federal policing will increase by 10%. Tens of billions of dollars would then be transferred to local police coffers. Biden is delivering on his promise to “fund the police” to achieve his goal of “putting more cops on the beat.”

This trend is similarly seen in metropolitan cities across the U.S. One year removed from promises to defund the police, most are now allocating increased funding to them instead. Law enforcement budgets in progressive cities like Washington, D.C., Denver, and Los Angeles are not exempt from the expansion of police budgets. Austin, Texas, one of the most progressive large cities concerning reductions in 2020, not only restored its previous budget, but increased it by a whopping 35% to $442 million in 2021.

The purported goal of these increases is to reduce the surge in rates of violent crime. As Biden said, “I don’t hear many communities, no matter what their color or background, saying ‘I don’t want more protection in my community.’” Federal and city governments can’t assure us that the impact of more money — which equals more policing — will result in less violent crime for a variety of reasons. Any causation between these two has never been proven. But certain other negative impacts have been demonstrated. So, we should be skeptical of the promises made by politicians like New York City Mayor Eric Adams. He has pledged to double the number of officers patrolling the subway systems after a shooting in Brooklyn. Plans to cut funding to nearly every city department except the New York Police Department have been declared by the mayor.

Since reductions in violent crime outcomes are not clear, lawmakers should be aware of the insidious nexus between budget increases, elevated misdemeanor arrests, and the attendant harms of such policing. When people are arrested for petty offenses — loitering, trespassing, or simple drug possession, etc. — the effects can be devastating. Just a single arrest can make a person less likely to obtain employment, acquire housing, or even stay in school. The punishment of misdemeanor arrests can then cascade into fees and fines. There are also the “procedural hassles,” resulting in lost time and energy, that are experienced even without a subsequent conviction.

The devastation of unnecessary policing is not just on the individual but on the community as a whole. If misdemeanor policing, or “broken windows policing,” actually reduced crime, an acceptable balance might be struck between these observed costs and the public safety benefits of low-level arrests. But it doesn’t, and there isn’t. Multiple studies have demonstrated that concentrated misdemeanor policing does not reduce crime. One study analyzed data reflecting the effects of randomly dismissing misdemeanor charges. Those that had their charges randomly dismissed were less likely to be rearrested within two years — misdemeanor policing appears to actively increase criminality.

Over the last three decades, the number of police officers tracks with the number of misdemeanor arrests. As the former NYPD police chief put it, “When you hire more officers, they make more arrests.” Between 1996 and 2000, when local police were most numerous, so too were misdemeanor arrests. It seems self-evident, but the real question is: what are the benefits? One significant but underreported trend is that police made about half as many misdemeanor arrests in 2018 as they did in 1998, and there was no attendant rise in violent crimes during that time. The misdemeanor policing, or lack thereof, was not the cause of less violent crime.

Many studies find that increases in additional policing have no impact at all on violent crime. The reality is that in high-arrest neighborhoods, officers have a harder time investigating violent crime because there is no trust. The community begins to distrust not only the police but the criminal legal system as a whole. The average police department only solves (meaning, makes an arrest) in about half of all reported violent crimes. It would be of greater benefit to reallocate resources to investigating these crimes, while building community trust, than in hiring officers to focus on petty crimes. Increasing misdemeanor arrests will only exacerbate the harms that the poor and communities of color already experience.

During this time, officials need to reach for innovative alternatives to policing, focus on violence instead of petty offenses, and continue to reduce the number of low-level arrests. Sadly, it appears that the new boss is the same as the old boss. 


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