Cities Should Take a Hard Look at Police Department Budgets (UPDATED)

Despite a massive decrease in crime, the NYPD has more officers and twice as many civilian employees now than in 1991.


As I noted previously, I think defunding the police is a foolish goal if it is to be done willy-nilly in a pique of anger against police brutality, as it could result in reduced public safety without any reforms. I also think the notion of getting rid of police departments entirely, if that's the goal, is beyond foolish.

This doesn't mean, however, that cities shouldn't take a hard look at whether they money spent on police is being spent wisely. For one thing, police departments are notorious for overtime, disability, and pension abuse. For another, some cities may have far more cops than needed.

Take New York City. In 1990, at the peak of the decades-long crime wave, New York City had 212,458 violent crimes, 932,416 property crimes, and 2,605 murders. At the time, it had a police force consisting of 26,756 uniformed and 9,483 nonuniformed personnel.

In 2018, the last year for which I could find statistics, New York City had 68,495 violent crimes, 281,507 property crimes, and 562 murders. In other words, crime is down dramatically.

Nevertheless, the New York City police force has since grown dramatically, consisting of approximately 36,000 officers and 19,000 civilian employees. Perhaps having more cops on the payroll has contributed to the lower crime rate, though crime rates have fallen nationwide. Even if so, the more than doubling of civilian employees is an especially stark statistic. With far fewer crimes to process, how could New York City possibly need twice as many civilian employees as in 1990?

As a general matter, the police tend to be fairly popular, police unions are very strong, and no politician loses votes by promising to spend more money on policing. We have a unique moment when there is widespread sentiment that police budgets should no longer be a sacred cow. Along with reforms to hold officers accountable for police brutality and reduce its frequency, this would be a great time to dispense with simplistic sloganeering, and instead take a long, hard look at just how many police officers and civilian employees cities need for current crime rates.

UPDATE: In 1995, New York City merged the transit police and the housing department police into the NYPD. I'm not sure if the 1990 statistics counted these officers and their bureaucracies, and this may account for the increase in officers (though the civilian increase is still stark). Anyone with expertise on this is welcome to chime in. Regardless, the NYPD is almost double the size of the entire Canadian army, so there is surely room to at least consider whether such a huge force is needed at a time when crime rates have dramatically receded, and especially to look at the size of the bureaucracy.

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  1. How many of those civilian employees are various sorts of appeasement to various communities? “Outreach” and whatnot?

    And how many of them are funded by the VAWA largess? What the VAWA has done to policing, and how it has partially *caused* the problems we see today is worth researching.

    Uniformed cops on foot patrol and serving as a positive male role model to youths who don’t have one *will* reduce crime (and bring in tourist revenue), but…

    1. The NYPD Step Squad is helping breach the wall between the police department and the minority communities it serves and protects. New Yorkers can do better by funding rap & hip-hop music festivals and African-American art galleries in local police department buildings. Together, we can build a stronger, more understanding community.

  2. This is as bad as the criticisms of the prison system where people point out that prison populations have grown even as crime has decreased.

    Has it not occurred to people that the reason crime has gone down is because there are more police and more criminals in prisons?

    ” Perhaps having more cops on the payroll has contributed to the lower crime rate, though crime rates have fallen nationwide.”

    That doesn’t refute the argument. Police budgets are likely also higher nationwide. You’re just handwaving away a serious criticism of your argument.

    The NYPD is a bureaucracy. Is there any part of the NYC government that has not grown similarly since 1990? What’s the count on social workers over the last 30 years?

    Larger numbers have been shown pretty conclusively to have a strong effect on crime rates. Do any of these other programs we’re supposed to replace the police with have data backing up their effectiveness?

    1. “I can’t think of any possible justification for the non-officer bureaucracy to have more than doubled, so I’ll just deflect from that issue with hand-waving.”

      1. Who will write the standard operating procedures and rules of engagement so police officers do not violate the civil liberties of the minority community? We need those bureaucrats if we want to have a racially just police department.

      2. This is because you have a general misunderstanding of what civilian police employees do, and are called upon to do.

        All of those traffic cops? Technically many of them are civilian employees. “Meter maids?” Civilian employees. School safety officials? Civilian employees. IT staff? Civilian employees. CSI and lab staff? Civilian employees. Contract specialists, Quality assurance managers? Civilian. Dispatchers? Civilian.

        1. More IT staff should lead to the need for fewer cops, as targeted enforcement replaces random patrols. Meter maids are irrelevant to public safety. And the NYPD needs more school safety officials, Dispatchers, etc. when crime is way down why?

          1. “And the NYPD needs more school safety officials, … when crime is way down why?”

            Because of those school shooters that lurk behind every bush.

            1. With Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in perspective, I think police officers who become school safety officials are choosing a form of early retirement with limited hours and full benefits.

          2. Re: More IT staff greater efficiency…

            You would hope that, but mostly, not necessarily. It may lead to an increase in crimes being solved, and did, especially early on. An entire array of computer and cyber crime (areas that didn’t really exist in 1990 past a minimal level) needs enforcement, and that falls under the IT enforcement.

            Meter maids and traffic cops do fall under public safety. There are 4,000 traffic enforcement agents (all civilian) in NYC. If a road is blocked (due to double parking, for example) critical safety vehicles may be unable to pass it.

            The NYPD has about 5200 School Safety Agents (again, largely all civilian). That department was originally in the department of education, but transferred over to NYPD in 1998, and account for a large chunk of your increase in civilian force. You may argue it doesn’t belong there, but it was just a transfer over.

            1. The OP is such a typical slapdash Bernstein piece. By the time you add in the merger of formerly separate departments, the transfer of school safety agents, and the like, it’s not clear whether there has been any increase at all in the NYPD. But Bernstein hasn’t done actual research, he just throws some stuff in the air to see what happens. Really, I say, if you have a job, a family, friends, or a hobby, do not take time from any of them to read anything by Bernstein. You aren’t learning anything.

              1. It’s a worthwhile discussion to have, but it does need more research.

                New York is on the high side for officers per capita, compared to other cities around the US (Right around 42 per 100,000 currently). That’s in the same ballpark as Chicago (44), DC (55), and Baltimore (40). There are many cities (especially out west) that have far lower numbers of officers per capita. LA at 25, Vegas at 21, Houston at 22. And it’s worth asking why the differences are there. On first look, the lower density cities appear to need less in the way of officers per capita, but it could also be a mix of state/county effects and how things are being counted.


          3. The need for more IT in police has increased due to more body and dash cams, as well as more electronic evidence collection.

          4. I think you’re mostly mistaking a shuffling of the department that civilian employees come under for enlargement of the “bureaucracy”.

            The Traffic Enforcement Agency was made part of the NYPD in 1995, so all the civilian traffic enforcement agents and supervisors were not on the NYPD civilian employee count in 1990, but are 2,700 or so of that count today.

            School security staff wasn’t part of the NYPD in 1990, but were moved over to it from the Department of Education in 1998, so civilians employed as “school safety agents” weren’t part of the NYPD employee count in 1990, but are 5,000 of them are in the department’s civilian employee count today.

            I believe that the city’s paid part-time school crossing guards weren’t on the NYPD civilian employee count in 1990 either, but they are now, and there are about 2,200 of them.

            Traffic enforcement, of course, isn’t particularly responsive to crime rates. Neither is the need for crossing guards. So, maybe with reduced crime you could cut the number of school security agents, but I don’t think an average of 2.7 per school or 1 per 220 students is obviously excessive.

            1. Hmm, I wonder how all those mergers with NYPD affected the size of the police union?

      3. I’m not sure why you’re insisting on conflating non-sworn employees with “bureaucracy”. For instance, it would be rather appalling if the department doesn’t have several times as many forensic DNA and computer analysts as it did in the early 90s. Likewise, the increasing use of broad and early access to discovery (which is good) creates an additional logistical burden (particularly in light of the much higher volume of evidence collected and created in even routine cases today), and the efficient solution isn’t having cops spending their shifts making photocopies and burning DVDs.

        Now, maybe you have some evidence that the increase in the civilian employee numbers is indeed predominantly in the form of unnecessary jobs. But you certainly haven’t provided it. Similarly, I think the odds are good that any government entity with a $6 billion budget probably has some fat that could be trimmed, and in that sense it’s certainly reasonable to ask the city to take a “hard look” at it (just as it should be doing every year, with the entire budget). But I don’t think the numbers you’ve provided here do much to demonstrate that there’s a particular issue with the police.

        1. Having taken a quick look at the numbers for large urban departments on Wikipedia, New York’s numbers—a civilian employee population more than half the size of the number of sworn officers) does seem unusually high. (Most other departments were in the 20-30% range.) That is indeed the kind of disparity that would be worth examining further, although I don’t think it’s necessarily evidence of waste or overspending. (For instance, Chicago’s civilian employee numbers are less than 10% of the sworn officers: at least some of that disparity must either come from similar function being performed by other government agencies, or by police officers in Chicago doing work that is done by civilians in New York.)

    2. (And no, I don’t want to replace excessive officers or bureaucracies with other programs, I’d cut taxes or fully fund pension obligations if not current funded instead).

      1. Better yet, convert the defined benefit program to a defined contribution program. If you are serious about saving money, then start here.

        1. This would be massive progress, which is why no union ever will allow it to happen.

    3. The US national average for police officers (not admin personnel) per capita is around 17 officers per 10K population.

      NYPD has 42.3 officers per 10K population.

      Any argument that NYC isn’t over policed is delusional bull shit.

      1. Using the national average is misleading. Typically, heavier, more densely populated areas have more crime (and require more officers) per capita than more less dense areas. This is despite these areas already having higher police numbers.

  3. With a budget of $6 billion and a population of 8.4 million, NYC spends about $700 per person on security. This is almost double the amount that the US spends on direct foreign aid per capital to Israel ($383). So, yes, they could probably optimize the budget.

    1. Perhaps I’m being obtuse, but why would we expect the optimal per capital spending on police officers in New York to be more (or less, or the same) as US foreign aid to Israel?

      1. Because I’m assuming the reason we send money to Israel is for the security of Israeli citizens. If not, you tell me.

        1. No, I don’t think it’s accurate to say that the purpose of US aid to Israel is to benefit Israeli citizens in the same way that New York’s police budget is designed to benefit New Yorkers.

            1. It should be obvious. We are not paying for Israel’s security. The cost of Israeli citizens’ security is many times that of NY citizens, and Israel pays for it; we just help out a little.

              And the purpose of that help is mostly to subsidize the US arms industry, by making it a little cheaper for the Israelis to buy arms from US suppliers than from foreign ones. Almost all that aid has to be spent in the USA, and they have to throw in a lot of their own money to go with it.

              On the other hand, the NYPD budget is not the full cost of protecting NYC citizens; you have to include their share of the DOD and DHS budgets and miscellaneous other federal and state budgets too.

    2. What, you mean we’re spending more money on our own safety than in sending money to other governments? Dear God, obviously we’re out of control!

  4. Prof. Volokh hasn’t been by this morning to defend Bill Barr’s interview concerning The Battle Of Lafayette Square or to put in a good word for those Texas Republican Party officials being bashed by liberals for expressing opinions on racial issues.

    Maybe he’s still at church?

    1. What are you doing here, I thought you were a reverend? Are you multitasking on Zoom?

      1. Congregation Of Exalted Reason. Every day is a great day for reason . . . Sunday is just another day for the reasonable.

        1. A congregation of one?

          1. The congregation of reason — also known by preference for progress, science, inclusiveness, modernity, and education — is large and growing, destined to continue shaping American progress.

            1. It never dawned on you that co-opting the title of “Reverend” could be offensive to sincere religious people did it?

              1. Yes it occurred to him. The whole point is to mock religious people.

                1. Most of the point was to position for a world in which a religion-based claim provided limitless, unearned special privilege.

                  The rest of the point was to demonstrate that the greater the special privilege associated with religion-based claims, the more people will advance religion-based claims.

                  1. In contemporary American culture, I think slavery has replaced original sin, racism has replaced sin in general, and reparations will eventually be advocated to serve as indulgences since Obama didn’t wash away our sins like Jesus Christ.

              2. What I see is a sincerely held belief that saying something makes it true. Arthur L Kirkland belongs in the pantheon of demagogues, including Joseph McCarthy, Father Coughlin, Pope Urban II, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Kony, and L Ron Hubbard.

                1. The Rev seems to inspire reactions from the humorless, doesn’t he?

              3. It’s actually illegal to be offensive or to lie about your title on the internet.

        2. What a clinger troll!

    2. The Sabbath is over, Reverend. Eugene is probably just relaxing.

    3. Open wider Rev. The bigotry is running down your chin.

  5. If the goal is to reform policing, two of the most effective ways to do that are to increase hiring standards and provide officers with more and better training. Neither of those come cheap.

    1. It was a kerfuffle of not many years ago that police hiring standards can be too high if the goal is compliant enforcers..

    2. The public sector unions protect bad actors. In the county permitting office that just means that the clerk can avoid eye contact while texting on her phone while you wait for half an hour. DMV anyone?
      In the police department it results in officers like Chauvin with several times the average number of excessive force complaints being protected until he finally crossed the line.
      It is not a matter of training. Those cops in Fresno knew they shouldn’t steal just as Chauvin knew killing a restrained man was over the top. Hiring standards only mean you take the best guess on who to hire. Sometimes you guess wrong, cut your losses, and fire the bastard.
      Unless the union steps in. Who have you heard of working in the public sector was fired?

    3. Can we just outsource community policing in African-American neighborhoods to the Black Panthers? That way New York would have separate but equal police departments for racially different communities.

      1. Hey, it worked great for the Rolling Stones and the Hell’s Angels.

  6. Go back to the source of the problem, i.e., the big city mayor who have wanted the police to do excatly what they are doing.
    How often have we heard about the buck stopping with DJT wrt federal issues? Well, here the buck stops with big city mayors, who now have to sound “woke” to cover their political asses.
    Let’s demand real accountability from elected political leaders in cities.
    Let them explain what they have done beyond requiring computerized “training courses.”
    What have they done with respect to policies approved by their city councils to change the culture from militarized suppression, to support of their population?
    Just having a slogan “to serve and protect” does nothing when the culture is actually to serve the economic interests of the mayors’ political supporters.
    Regarding pensions: The root cause of the problem is NOT the greedy union, but the failure of elected officials to fully fund each year’s obligation in a sustainable trust fund.

    1. Hard to demand real accountability when Trump’s DoJ stopped enforcing consent decrees about police reform.

      1. S0,
        I don’t buy your excuse.
        You are doubtless well aware that the hypocrisy of big city mayors regarding the police predates Trump by decades.
        The police are doing and have done what the mayors want done.

        1. Tough on crime and the concommitted capture by police interests has been successful nonsense for both parties all over the place.

          How do you propose to hold them to it, if not consent decrees?

          If you say voting in Republicans, you haven’t heard much of the GOP rhetoric on this.

          1. Er, so, how do you expect to actually hold the cities’ police departments to consent decrees?

            The DoJ is always going to be answering to a President either of the same party that has its base in the big cities, or the very party that you say voting for in those cities won’t help. Expecting a perpetual mismatch between local elected officials of the Democratic Party and a Democratic president, plus perpetual Democratic control of the White House, is not a particularly sound strategy.

            1. Obama held them to consent decrees.

              The President doesn’t usually micromanage the DoJ. And federal politics are not the same as municipal politics; being tough on crime hasn’t played federally since the 1990s.

              1. So, your strategy for police reform, seriously, is to rely on both a perpetual policy mismatch between the local and federal levels of the Democratic Party and either perpetual Democratic control of the White House or Republican presidents’ AGs not caring enough to carry through on GOP rhetoric?

                Either you’re feeling very stupid right about now, or you simply are very stupid.

  7. Of course, “they” don’t mean defund the police; “they” mean give me the police budget – – – –

    1. These are the same people who said all they needed was more funding to make public school systems work. Remember all the promises from teacher unions, school districts, and liberals that won bipartisan support in the early 2000’s to increase school funding. And, 15 years later what do we have? Depending on which “study” probably just about the same levels of performance despite nearly doubling the amount spent per student.

      Now they want to try their wacky ideas with more taxpayer money. Lets not fall for it this time.

    2. That maybe, but every cry of “defund the police” is tantamount to a boost for DJT

      1. And that is a bad thing?

  8. Is America really “over-policed” though?

    For context, let’s compare America to other countries. For the sake of argument, we’ll stick to high-income countries.

    The US has 298 police officers per capita, overall.

    It’s true that some countries have less. For example, the UK has 211, while Australia has 218 per capita.

    On the other hand, some countries have more police officers per capita. Germany sits at 381 police officers per capita, Italy at 456 and France at 340.

    Overall, the US sits comfortably in the middle of the pack for high income western countries, and is likely not “over-policed”

    1. You don’t like statistics, do you? I really doubt any country has more than one police officer per capita. lat alone hundreds.

      1. It’s police officers per 100,000 people of course. Still a very fair point, in my view.

        At any rate, the numbers in New York seem pretty comparable to other large, densely populated cities in the US and Western and Northern Europe.

      2. Sigh….

        You got me, I made a slight error. It’s per 100,000 people as Nositur notes (as does the link). I was concentrating on getting the actual numbers correct.

        Are you happy?

  9. Many tasks, like watching over road repair crews, don’t require fully-trained cops. Just as we have physician assistants for simple medical tasks, why aren’t there “cop assistants” for things for which fully-trained police are overqualified?

  10. In terms of civilian employees, the Housing Authority explains a bit — each high-rise has at least one person supervising the lobby on a 24/7 basis, and that takes something like 4.3 actual persons working full-time to staff that, probably 10 if you are hiring folks who work part-time (which is usually the case).

    It wouldn’t take long to get a fairly high headcount out of that, particularly if they were staffing with more than one person at night, which wouldn’t be a bad idea. They have lots of housing projects….

    1. Is that person a police employee? If so, why do you need to be part of the NYPD to supervise the lobby if you aren’t a cop?

      1. The Housing Authority had it’s own police force from 1952 to 1995, when it merged with NYPD. That could help to explain the increase in NYPD numbers.

        1. And I’m guessing that the lobby monitors — which is a security function — were paid out of the Housing Authority Police Budget and thus were inherited by the NYPD.

          It actually makes more sense to have them supervised by the police because who else would you have supervising them? They aren’t janitors, they aren’t bookkeepers, and at least in theory the police know something about security.

          1. You gotta have a line item somewhere if the city is going to pay you.

      2. You don’t have to be part of the NYPD to do the civilian jobs like traffic enforcement or school security, but transferring those forces back into their circa-1994 city departments isn’t the same thing as cutting bureaucracy, any more than moving them under the NYPD umbrella in the 1990s was increasing it.

  11. I recall when Prof. Bernstein’s posts were annoyingly progressive. Then they became annoyingly Trumpist. But this is a good mix.

    1. I find they’re becoming increasingly scattershot – even erratic. Just look at the last three : The silly snowflake whining on DJT’s reelection, the statistical attempt to “prove” Blacks don’t distrust police, and now this…. All so lightweight you could blow them off easier than extinguishing birthday candles.

      But what do I know? I keep expecting announcement of Professor Bernstein’s new book any day now : “Lawless: The Trump Administration’s Unprecedented Assault on the Constitution and the Rule of Law”

      It’s gotta be at the presses by now, right?

  12. Years ago, maybe a decade or more, Phoenix had an audit of the PD. The final report, The Berkshire Report, uncovered a pension padded scheme and noted Phoenix was spending too much on police. The department was overstaffed compared to the crime levels. Naturally, the city politicos buried the report.

  13. I suspect a big chunk of the increase, especially in the civilian employee group, is related to post-9/11 counterterrorism activities.

    1. Because the life of 1 person killed by terrorism is worth 10,000 lives killed by a common criminal.

      1. You could say the same thing about black people and poor white people. Houston Police chief Art Acevedo goes unpunished and without national condemnation after his drug goon squad murdered a poor white couple in Houston under the premise of a lawful drug raid. National politicians are silent, the mainstream media is silent, and popular celebrities remain silent too.

        1. You’re right there is precious little outrage at everyday police brutality and excessive force. I’m outraged every week when I read in Short Circuit some new instance of police abuse. However, its also kind of depressing, and it’s easy to dismiss as a unfortunate part of reality for which nothing much can be done. At least I’m not responsible for it.

          On the other hand….
          Consciously or not I think everyone’s a little bit racist. Therefore, when a black man dies because of racist motives, a man has basically died because of our sin (sound familiar?). It strikes a nerve. If that’s what it takes to abolish qualified immunity, then whatever works, I say.

    2. Nope. Actually, it turns out that 1995-1999, a whole bunch of civilians doing civilian jobs were moved from elsewhere in the city government org chart to the Civilian Affairs Bureau of the the NYPD. And that the number of civilians currently doing those transferred-in responsibilities is pretty much the same as the difference in the 1990 and current civilian employee numbers.

  14. After a little checking it seems the New Your Housing Authority Police had around 2,700 sworn officers when merged with NYPD and the Transit police had around 4,400. These are not official numbers and don’t include civilian employees.

    1. How does the Transit Police deal with jurisdiction in NJ, as many of it’s lines go there.

      1. The PATH trains that go to New Jersey are managed by the Port Authority, which still has its own independent police force.

  15. Too bad. I used to like going to Broadway shows and museums in NYC. But I’m not going anymore if I have to risk my safety to do so.

  16. The big takeaway that people are going to get from these two weekends is, yet again, the left has overplayed its hand and is going to get blow back from it. The point where you lost Debbie Soccer Mom and Steve Suburban Dad was “defund the police” and the constant stream of anti-white racist articles in the mainstream media. Once stores open back up and there is other recreational activity going to the downtown protest is going to be so yesterday. And when some looted stores just don’t open back up these same people are going to make the connection that maybe the looting seemed cool and edgy when it happened, but it has real lasting economic ramifications.

    The protests will fizzle out and when transitional neighborhood becomes a “food desert” again because the functioning grocery store doesn’t reopen people will say “oh yeah….about that….” And by August Trump will be back up to 48 percent approval and we will be back to February.

  17. And that’s why NYC has been the best place to live in 2020? NYC is on a feeding tube, an IV, a ventilator, a cardiac bypass pump, kidney dialysis, a colostomy bag and a urinary catheter for decades. It persists only by artificial means as a city, including an irrationally high ratio of police. Why single out policing as a deviation from the norm for a place that defines the extreme?

    1. So, defund the entire city government? Works for me.

  18. David, just to note, NYPD was 40,000 officers prior to a major cutback. Around 1990 NYPD absorbed Transit and Housing police, and that has brought it to the current 36,000. Since that time, it did add officers under the Clinton community policing program, then positions post 9/11 for anti-Terrorism. As to civilians, technology has grown everyplace, plus the ever growing bureaucracy needs more and more hands. Look at the FBI, it’s civilian staff has grown exponentially since 2000.

    1. One would think that better technology from civilian employees (e.g., being able to pinpoint emerging crime hotspots) would in turn require fewer beat cops and detectives to achieve the same results

  19. Walk away brothers. Don’t let them kill you!

  20. In the next few years, things are gonna change even the police department too. Technology and Artificial intelligence will take some control.

  21. Not only is municipal policing a historically contingent phenomenon, but this version of it is also of recent vintage — late 19th century, coeval with industrialization and the emergence of the urban underclass. What we’re witnessing here isn’t an overstep by a universal phenomenon in society, but rather a specific institution doing what it was programmed to do, and the question is whether this is needed now, or if it was ever right in the first place. There are ways of maintaining social order without having bands of armed men and women roaming the area actively enforcing compliance with every law on the books.

    Mind you, many an early modern subject trudging home through the winter darkness might think this innovation a positive one (and perhaps even a whiggishly positivist one), but any municipal authority walking armed through the town at noon actively enforcing every statute on the books might have met a different reception.

    Not only are there no easy answers to this sort of thing, but the questions themselves can be difficult to form properly.

    Mr. D.

  22. “Despite a massive decrease in crime, the NYPD has more officers and twice as many civilian employees now than in 1991.”

    Does it even occur to you that the latter might be because of the former and not “despite” the former?

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