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Police re-funding efforts counter crime wave

Experts say police need boosts to staff, not just budgets

New York police officers board a subway train on Tuesday. Associated Press/Photo by Mary Altaffer

Police re-funding efforts counter crime wave

Ten billion dollars of federal COVID-19 relief funds will bolster police departments and public safety across the United States, President Joe Biden announced in remarks in the Rose Garden earlier this month after a meeting with mayors and police chiefs at the White House.

“To every governor, every mayor, every county official, the need is clear, my message is clear: Spend this money now. Use these funds we made available to you; prioritize public safety,” Biden urged. “Do it quickly before the summer, when crime rates typically surge.”

On the two-year anniversary of George Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis, local officials are still struggling to contain rising crime in most major cities. Floyd’s death sparked anti-police protests that, in December 2020, prompted the Minneapolis City Council to eliminate $8 million from its police budget. At least a dozen cities followed suit. COVID-19 lockdowns strained police departments further as cities lost revenue and cut their budgets across the board. 

Those same cities are now walking back their police budget cuts. Pressure from residents and political action groups to deal with the rise in violent crime has pushed city councils to re-fund police — and many have used COVID-19 relief dollars to do so. Cities have already allocated about $6.5 billion in pandemic relief to boost public safety, including by preventing layoffs of police officers and adding equipment. While passing bigger budgets will help, experts say that staffing shortage solutions and broader criminal justice reforms are needed to quell the rise in crime.

Homicides in downtown Minneapolis in 2021 nearly doubled from the 2015-2019 average. Eighteen months after the killing of George Floyd, Minneapolis residents got the chance to vote on an amendment to the city charter that would replace the police department with a new Department of Public Safety. Scott Cramer, a former City Council member who opposed the measure, sprang into action. He helped organize an independent political action committee, All of Mpls, to defeat the amendment and elect council members committed to public safety.

During the 2021 election, the PAC ran TV ads, canvassed neighborhoods, flooded the mail with literature, and raised about $2.5 million. It was significantly outspent by the group pushing to dismantle the department, Yes 4 Minneapolis, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, which examined campaign finance reports filed with Hennepin County. Yes 4 Minneapolis received major funding from nonlocal sources, including the American Civil Liberties Union and MoveOn.org.

“People from San Francisco and New York were happy to fund the effort in Minneapolis because they don’t have to live with the consequences,” Cramer said, referencing the campaign finance disclosure reports filed with Hennepin County.

Ultimately, Minneapolis voters in November turned out in record numbers and defeated the measure, 56 percent to 44 percent. The year ended with a vote by the council to pass Mayor Jacob Frey’s $192 million police budget. (The budget was only $179 million before the police defunding movement took off.)

The New York Police Department announced that crime had risen 22 percent in May 2021 compared with the same month in 2020. The New York City Council responded by adding $200 million to the police budget. Los Angeles approved a $150 million cut to its police budget in 2020, but raised it by 3 percent after homicides rose by almost 30 percent in the first few months of 2021. In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot unveiled her plan to raise police spending to $1.9 billion, up from $1.7 billion in 2021.

The City Council in Austin, Texas, voted unanimously to cut $150 million from its $434 million police budget in 2020 by canceling cadet classes, cutting specialized units, and transferring funds to community programs. In response, state legislators passed a law penalizing cities that shrink police budgets in the future. Meanwhile, homicides in Austin reached a record high last year. The City Council reversed cuts when it passed its 2021-2022 budget, and at $442 million, the police department has more funding than ever before.

Austinites also voted on Proposition A, a measure to mandate minimum police staffing levels that ultimately went down in defeat. Matt Mackowiak, the co-founder of the political action committee Save Austin Now, which advocated for the initiative, said budget increases are not enough. Though Austin has restored police funding, the city still needs to address its staffing shortage, a crisis plaguing departments in most major cities across the country.

“We are massively understaffed, and violent crime is rising,” said Mackowiak. With fewer police and an ever-increasing population, he said, “Austin is less safe today than it ever has been.”

Lars Trautman, a former prosecutor who works with the conservative criminal justice reform initiative Right on Crime, agreed about the need to prioritize police department staffing. As cities re-fund their departments to counter rising crime, he said, they must do so in a “smart and targeted manner” by boosting incoming cadet classes, retention incentives, and paid time off.

Ralfael Mangual from the Manhattan Institute added that police departments are only effective if supported by the broader criminal justice system. If arrests are undermined by progressive prosecutors who let criminals off the hook, he argued, cities will see little reprieve from crime and violence.

Back in Minneapolis, Cramer is working not only to strengthen public safety but to boost economic productivity. He leads the Minneapolis Downtown Council, a business organization with more than 450 members who are committed to the thriving community downtown and believe public safety is key to flourishing. They want to encourage workers in the wake of the pandemic to come back to the office and for residents to attend theaters, sports games, and civic events without fear of crime.

Cramer sees the city’s No. 1 challenge — recruiting officers — as its No. 1 opportunity: “We need to rebuild the Minneapolis Police Department in numbers and in culture.”

Addie Offereins

Addie is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and immigration. She is a graduate of Westmont College and the World Journalism Institute. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, Ben.

You sure do come up with exciting stuff to read, know, and talk about. —Chad

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