The Volokh Conspiracy

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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.