Police Violence Reached an All-Time High Last Year—Are We Ready to Shrink Police Budgets?

Yves here. While this article usefully points out how police abuses of power continue to increase, simple-minded solutions like “give them less money” provides no assurance that behavior will change.

The problem is that police engage in a behavior that is common in unions and even more so in the police biz: closing ranks and defending “brothers” even when known to be abusive hotheads. Any officer who tries not going along risks signing his own death warrant, for instance that fellow cops won’t come when someone perceived to be disloyal is in a bad spot and calls for backup.

Many years ago, Malcolm Gladwell (who does have his moments) wrote up a study of violent behavior in the Los Angeles Police Department, notorious for its frequency of unjustified beatings and worse. The LAPD went through all of the usual types of additional training to no effect.

Gladwell argued that training the average LA cop would do nothing because the average cop was no problem. The overwhelming majority of police officers had not engaged in unwarranted use of force. The LA data shows that police violence was a classic power curve: the bad behavior was concentrated among a very few officers, who’d repeatedly beaten up civilians on at best weak pretexts. Yet they were still on the force. They hadn’t even been taken off the street.1

Gladwell said these uncontrollable cops needed to be removed entirely from police forces. Yet that seems to be an institutional impossibility, and it reflects that police are too often not subject to civilian control. Using money to try to tell cops who is the boss isn’t likely to improve outcomes. For instance, cops can get their revenge by neglecting key neighborhoods and getting them to scream for more policing and therefore a restoration of funding.

In other words, as they say in Maine, “You can’t get there from here,” or at least in an easy manner.

By Sonali Kolhatkar, an award-winning multimedia journalist. She is the founder, host, and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a weekly television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. Her forthcoming book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights Books, 2023). She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute and the racial justice and civil liberties editor at Yes! Magazine. She serves as the co-director of the nonprofit solidarity organization the Afghan Women’s Mission and is a co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan. She also sits on the board of directors of Justice Action Center, an immigrant rights organization. Produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute

The year 2022 was the deadliest year on record in the United States for fatalities at the hands of law enforcement. According to the Washington Post’s police shootings database, law enforcement officers shot and killed 1,096 people last year. In comparison, there were 1,048 shooting fatalities at the hands of police the year before, 1,019 the year before that, 997 the year before that, and so on.

These numbers are most likely underestimated. According to Abdul Nasser Rad, managing director of research and data at Mapping Police Violence, the Post “only captures incidents where a police officer discharges their firearm and the victim is killed.” This means that it doesn’t count events like the 2014 killing of Eric Garner in New York and the 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, as both deaths resulted from asphyxiation.

In contrast, Mapping Police Violence includes any action that a law enforcement officer takes that results in a fatal encounter. For example, Rad’s project concluded that police killed 1,158 people in 2021 compared to the Post’s figure of 1,048 (final results for 2022 are not yet available).

There are other databases of police violence like Fatal Encounters, run by the University of Southern California, that have their own criteria for counting police-related killings. Such projects track police violence because the federal government refuses to, in spite of a 1994 law requiring the Justice Department to keep records. Moreover, there is evidence that biased reporting by medical examiners and coroners in individual cases is helping significantly to cover up the extent of police violence.

I will not attempt to pick apart the author’s use of statistics or treatment of correlation as causation. I leave that to readers.

The upshot is that in spite of the huge public attention on police violence since 2020, every year cops kill more and more people. We can expect 2023 to be even deadlier if the years-long trend continues.

Another clear conclusion is that police violence is dramatically focused on communities of color. According to the Washington Post, Black Americans “are killed by police at more than twice the rate of White Americans,” while Mapping Police Violence finds that “Black people are 2.9x more likely to be killed by police than white people in the U.S.” Police killings of Latinos and Indigenous people are similarly disproportionate.

Recall that in the aftermath of Floyd’s murder in 2020 at the hands of officer Derek Chauvin, activists demanded a defunding of the police. The well-documented assumption underlying that demand was that generously funded police departments were using their resources to kill people, especially poor people of color whose needs in turn were not being funded.

Rad explains that the disproportionate police killings of people of color are “due to historical disinvestment and how the U.S. state has used punitive and carceral responses to social problems, specifically to Black and Brown communities.” Therefore, the only just conclusion is to divert tax revenues from fueling death to fueling life.

Instead of city governments embracing the life-affirming idea of diverting money away from murderous police, media pundits and politicians led a reactionary backlash. President Joe Biden, in a clear clapback at the defund movement, promised to fund the police, and even begged local governments to use federal stimulus funds to bolster their police departments in 2022.

In Minneapolis, which became the focus of international attention in the wake of Floyd’s murder, lawyers Doug Seaton and James Dickey opined in a piece titled “Minneapolis Needs a Fully-Funded Police Department,” that “the city’s most vulnerable… have suffered from” the demand to defund police. One might conclude that Minneapolis’ police are struggling for funding, but in fact more than a third of the city’s entire general fund is poured into police coffers. Mother Jones’ Eamon Whalen rightly concluded that “The Police Are Defunding Minneapolis.”

According to Rad, “In 2022, funding actually continued to increase across U.S. cities into law enforcement agencies.” He adds, “what might be the media narrative actually doesn’t match up to what is actually going on.”

Does giving police more money result in greater public safety, as Seaton and Dickey claim, and as Biden assumes? One recent study analyzing funding of hundreds of police departments over nearly three decades concluded that “new police budget growth is likely to do one thing: increase misdemeanor arrests.”

One of the study’s authors, Brenden Beck, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado Denver, writing in Slate about his team’s results, said, “The trend was clear: When cities decreased the size of their police departments, they saw fewer misdemeanor arrests and when they increased them, they saw more.”

According to Beck, “misdemeanor enforcement is concentrated in poor neighborhoods and in communities of color.” He is confident that, “One thing… [increased police funding] is likely to do, even if paired with community policing, is generate more misdemeanor arrests. Arrests that will disproportionately hurt poor and Black people.”

It is during such arrests that police tend to kill Black and Brown people. Those cities that specifically took steps to reduce arrests for petty crimes saw a decrease in police killings, according to data scientist and cofounder of Campaign Zero Samuel Sinyangwe. He also concluded that crime rates in those cities did not increase.

There is so much data bolstering the fact that more police funding means more violence and death at the hands of police. And yet, police departments remain flush with cash.

How can we simply accept that police will continue to kill more and more people each year?

Not everyone accepts this deadly status quo. In spite of the backlash, police abolitionists are continuing to organize. They have created a powerful internet tool, DefundPolice.org, to help communities put police spending into perspective and reimagine their city budgets. The site includes a detailed video tutorial on how to use tools like a “people’s budget calculator.”

In Los Angeles, whose police budget receives massive infusions of private foundation cash on top of generous public funding, activists have been using the idea of a “people’s budget” to “reimagine public safety.” Vocal critics of police funding like Eunisses Hernandez and Kenneth Mejia have won elections to powerful local offices.

It’s not enough to call out police when they kill people. It’s not enough to march in the streets or write op-eds. Police will continue to murder more people every year with impunity, their violence nurtured by powerful allies. If we want to see a significant reversal to the ruthless march of police savagery, we’re going to need to put our money where our mouths are: toward people’s needs, not police’s deadly deeds.

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1 One has to consider that a reason for the continued survival of some, perhaps all, of these dirty cops is that they have kompromat on higher ups in the police force and city government.

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33 comments

  1. tindrum

    I posted this somewhere else at NC yesterday but it seems far more relevant here.
    This is a (imho) great video of the battle between the well armed, funded and organised german police and a mystical climate-warrior who defeats them single handedly.

    https://vm.tiktok.com/ZMYJaLujb/

    Reply
  2. John R Moffett

    This is the age old problem of the wealthy needing property protectors. It is no wonder now that the oligarchs have a greater share of the wealth than at just about any previous time that we would have the most militarized police forces. If you want to go after the root of the problem, tax the rich, a lot. Like Eisenhower era tax levels, and that will get at the root of the problem.

    It isn’t a coincidence that one of the main efforts of the oligarchs is to keep reducing their own taxes through legislators.

    The Defund the police link is very helpful.

    Reply
    1. Oh

      This is one more thing to thank Obama for. He not only gave the police weapons from the Defense dept. but had the audacity to praise the police in TX after one of them got killed in a fight with a citizen.

      One way to curb the police brutality is to take away their guns and other killing weapons, including tazers. Give them a night stick and a radio. The Korean police hardly ever carry guns let alone use them. The gangs there use sticks and pipes to fight.

      Reply
        1. Carla

          In other words, you need a different kind of “society.” With 400 million-plus guns in private hands, I see no possibility whatsoever of dis-arming police. What we have is a domestic arms race. Yes, it is completely insane.

          Reply
    2. Oh

      This is one more thing to thank Obama for. He not only gave the police weapons from the Defense dept. but had the audacity to praise the police in TX after one of them got killed in a fight with a citizen.

      One way to curb the police brutality is to take away their guns and other killing weapons, including tazers. Give them a night stick and a radio. The Korean police hardly ever carry guns let alone use them. The gangs there use sticks and pipes to fight.

      Reply
  3. kriptid

    The problem is that police engage in a behavior that is common in unions and even more so in the police biz: closing ranks and defending “brothers” even when known to be abusive hotheads. Any officer who tries not going along risks signing his own death warrant…

    There are many stories one could speak of to this point, but one of the most recent and egregious is that of former NYPD Officer Adrian Schoolcraft.

    Although his insistence on improving the standards within the 81st precinct did not lead to his death, they did lead to him being involuntarily committed to a mental institution for four days by his fellow officers for daring to speak out against abuses of power. Only God knows what would have happened to this poor man if he hadn’t secretly recorded much of what happened in the police department and especially when they came to forcibly extract him from his home on the day they had him committed.

    Truly one of the most unhinged stories of this phenomenon of “protect the shield” in action. I encourage readers to familiarize themselves with it if they are not already. The original ‘NYPD tapes’ articles in the Village Voice are truly chilling to read. The police in that precinct viewed their constituents as little more than animals and I find little reason to suspect things have changed much in the 15 years since these events.

    NYPD litigated the man for more than six years until he finally agreed to take a settlement of $600k. Basically the equivalent of his salary the entire time the lawsuit was in the courts, and I’m sure his lawyers got a piece. Every good cop in the NYPD following that case saw a ton of reasons to keep their mouths shut.

    The testimony from Schoolcraft and the content of the tapes revealed that a lot of the corner-cutting and abuses of power were often linked to being understaffed. Perhaps this is not true in every case, but the Schoolcraft story shows how a lack of funding can actually cause rather than solve problems of police abuse.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adrian_Schoolcraft

    Reply
  4. DJG, Reality Czar

    On the one hand, Kolhatkar mentions that Minneapolis is spending a third of its general fund on policing. That recalls the disproportionate U.S. “defense” budget. So one may venture that the militarization of culture and society is costing too much. How to cut judiciously? I don’t know.

    And Yves Smith brings up the revenge of Pareto (a small group of observations often has an outsized influence):

    “The LA data shows that police violence was a classic power curve: the bad behavior was concentrated among a very few officers, who’d repeatedly beaten up civilians on at best weak pretexts. Yet they were still on the force. They hadn’t even been taken off the street.1 Gladwell said these uncontrollable cops needed to be removed entirely from police forces.”

    Noting the Gladwell is usually glib, to say the least, let’s give him his due here. He is right. Removing the ruinous minority would have a beneficial effect, likely on the cops who aren’t causing trouble. Colleagues who are messes are a mess in every business–in my business, publishing, we just happen not to carry weapons.

    Noting footnote 1: I’m not sure about kompromat. I think it is more the way that disciplinary hearings are time-consuming and unwieldy. Who wants to back into having one’s life dominated for months by cases and paperwork involving Officer Dysfunctional when it is easier to keep the evil clown out on the streets in a doughnut shop?

    Reply
    1. Questa Nota

      LAPD blue has a counterpart in the LA Sheriff’s Department green, by uniform color scheme. The former has been known for consent decrees over the years. The latter has had ongoing internal investigations about the cliques among deputies in various areas. Recent elections included finding a new sheriff.

      Los Angeles County population is around 10,000,000 according to Census data. That makes LA County larger than the vast majority of states, nudging up on the top 10 around Michigan. Given the preponderance of smaller cities, the LASD is often the contract law enforcement agency. Their reach is widespread.

      As I read about crime, policing and related matters, I am reminded of the requests by residents in so many areas. They don’t want less policing, they want the right kind of policing. Catch the perps, don’t harass the people who live, work, shop, worship, recreate, enjoy or pass through there.

      Reply
  5. TomDority

    How about hitting the police pension fund to compensate victims of Police violence instead of hitting taxpayer dollars and, please eliminate qualified immunity….. the police do not have a dangerous job compared to other trades… no need for qualified immunity. They get damned good pay and benefits for a relatively safe job I pay them to do…… at the very least, they can try to do a good job and kick out their ass-wipe colleagues who abuse their positions instead of ass-kissing those delinquents.

    Reply
  6. LawnDart

    Any officer who tries not going along risks signing his own death warrant, for instance that fellow cops won’t come when someone perceived to be disloyal is in a bad spot and calls for backup.

    100% true, and it’s what almost got Frank Serpico killed, IIRC: it’s not just the CIA that has a dozen ways of getting back at you…

    No easy solutions, but “a fish rots from the head” is true in my experience. I had supervisors who were very fair and honest people, and who wouldn’t tolerate any kind of excessive-force or abuse of authority. I had others who were on the wrong-side of a cage, who stated, “the only fun part of this job is arresting people” and would find amusement when handcuffed prisoners “tripped” and fell down flights of stairs.

    At the individual officer level, qualified-immunity needs to be closely-examined. At the organizational-level, promotions and appointments are often too political, and the organization and how it practices law enforcement will be a reflection of the quality and integrity of the ones pulling the strings.

    Reply
    1. .Tom

      > No easy solutions, but “a fish rots from the head” is true in my experience.

      I agree. Institutional culture is the problem and to change that you have to change leadership and provide incentives for good police behavior and punishment for bad. Politicians, e.g. mayors, often do a bad job of being the supervisors of their police forces so I like the idea of community oversight committees with the power to fire or discipline their districts’ police chief.

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      1. TimH

        Institutional culture is the problem and to change that you have to change leadership and provide incentives for good police behavior and punishment for bad.

        Also Fort Bragg. When the chain of command to report your rape is your Sargeant who was the rapist, what do you do? Fort Bragg issues were known for years without action.

        Reply
  7. eg

    Toronto has fewer notorious police abuse cases than American cities of its size; Toronto City Council recently passed an increase in the police budget which includes adding something like 200 officers.

    So, no — less funding for police not happening, at least not around here.

    Reply
    1. Oh

      Toronto has fewer notorious police abuse cases than American cities of its size; Toronto City Council recently passed an increase in the police budget which includes adding something like 200 officers.

      WHY?

      Reply
      1. jrkrideau

        Probably any number of reasons. AFAIK we do not have the same kind of qualified immunity in Canada as the USA has. Canada does not have the same levels of racial tensions though they do exist especially if you are aboriginal in some places.

        Almost no one in Canada owns, let alone carries, a handgun so we do not see quite the same level of paranoia in our police. Come to think of it, my province and many of the others actually formally launch an investigation if an officer draws a gun though I suspect instances often fall through the cracks.

        Police, from what I can gather, are generally better educated, trained, and paid in Canada.

        I am sure there are lots of other reasons including various cultural aspects.

        Reply
        1. Carla

          “Almost no one in Canada owns, let alone carries, a handgun so we do not see quite the same level of paranoia in our police.”

          There it is, right there.

          Reply
  8. The Rev Kev

    ‘In Los Angeles, whose police budget receives massive infusions of private foundation cash on top of generous public funding’

    That one made me stop and think as it would be so open to abuse. Remember last year when Paul Pelosi got into a car crash as he was drunk? At the time he tried to get out of trouble with the responding police by flashing his lifetime membership in the California Highway Patrol Association card. So is that how it works. You give money to the police and you get some sort of membership in an organization? So when you encounter the police, you flash your membership card and the cops take it easy on you? Granted this was in San Francisco and not LA but the principal is the same.

    Reply
  9. ArkansasAngie

    I want police to actively police. I want them to investigate and prosecute people who “do the crime” including police brutality, corruption, etc etc etc. All crime … big and small.

    And … I’m not willing to pay the personal cost of being a victim of crime in order to perform some social experiments on how to stop crime with non-police means.

    Reply
    1. TomDority

      Police do not usually stop crimes – although they may catch serial perps upon investigation… I do not want to see the trend of ‘preemptive’ applied to anything, including war, crime fighting, skills assessments etc.
      Disproportionate spending on police and war and terrorism etc is disproportionate because it makes for machismo politics and the whole ‘I’ll keep you safer from xyz than the other guy so vote for me’ deal.
      Sort of the same reason the department of war was changed to the department of defense… cause making war bad, defense good. Besides, appealing to fear works much better at raising dollars than appealing to the good of everyone.

      Reply
  10. John Beech

    Shrink police budgets? Despite being 8-10 minutes from their help (county resident so deputies have a distance to travel) kindly count me out. The opposite, in fact and I’m fine with increased taxes to give them more resources.

    Why? Simple, it’s because around here the thugs style themselves home invasion specialists. You want to cut back on police resources? Fine, do it in your neighborhood because that’s what voting on local issues is all about, but kindly shut up about mine.

    Reply
    1. lyman alpha blob

      How about we properly target funding?

      I have no problem paying Officer Friendly a better than average wage to police my neighborhood, help old ladies across the street, etc.

      I have a huge problem buying jacked-up, musclebound, ex-military trained killers a tank.

      Reply
      1. rowlf

        The sheriff in my suburban/semi-rural county in Georgia got rid of the military equipment on the basis that it was too expensive to maintain for the possible benefit. He was a former urban SWAT team member, prefers traditional police work and thinks no-knock raids lead to goat rodeos that would be better solved by stake-outs. He’s fired people for being dumbshits.

        This is the same person that puts up “Thank you for voting for me” signs after elections. He’s a local and very popular.

        (I also write this as someone who has been on the wrong side of a crooked urban police department in NYC trying to protect their own.)

        Reply
  11. David in Santa Cruz

    I think that Yves gets it “right” in her introduction. Violence in American society has been on the upswing during 2020-22. Police violence is but a facet of our violent culture.

    America was founded on violence, repression, and exploitation. American capitalism is the most greed-metastasized morph of that system. A fairer socio-economic system wouldn’t need militarized police. This author is woefully ignorant of American history and culture, as the earlier piece on nepotism showed.

    As Yves posits, the problem is that nobody in America other than the poor are held accountable for their behavior. It’s been shown that body-worn cameras correct the worst abuses by police in a heartbeat. I worked at a fairly high level in the criminal justice system during four decades and I have seen this to be so.

    Reply
    1. LawnDart

      …the problem is that nobody in America other than the poor are held accountable for their behavior.

      I would agree to this: the internal investigations that I was aware of (during time I spent in two separate and somewhat different organizations) appeared to be intended to limit political-fallout from situations that threatened to become public or newsworthy, usually by finding a fall-guy or gal who’s as low on the totem pole as possible.

      But, to reiterate my earlier comment, management sets the tone: if people don’t want dishonest and abusive cops, then they need to quit accepting dishonest and abusive politicians: the politicians themselves need to be policed and held to account for their actions.

      I do think that having local and independent oversight committees is an idea with merit, as this could provide officers a measure of protection against wrongdoing by others within their organization.

      Reply
    2. Carla

      @David in Santa Cruz: your commentary, along with Yves’ remarks introducing the piece, are the most astute observations here, IMHO. Thank you.

      Reply
  12. Matthew G. Saroff

    One of the interesting thing about the police is that individual officers are able to assign themselves overtime just by making arrests later in the day, which they do frequently.

    You have officers who routinely put in more than 60 hours a week, and they are impaired from lack of sleep.

    Reining in overtime might very well reduce the instances of police misconduct.

    Reply
  13. agent ranger smith

    How will down-funding police departments change police behavior all by itself? Wouldn’t downfunded police departments just raise their level of “civil forfeiture” to make up for the “missing money”? If we wanted the downfunding to really downfund them, we would have to abolish civil forfeiture at the same time.

    And if we wanted to create counter-incentives against gratuitous police violence, we would have to break and abolish the police unions and we would also have to effectively and in real-life cancel the concept of “qualified immunity” for police officers.

    We might also have to repeal a lot of laws so as to give the police less opportunity to “enforce” the “law”. How many “laws” were invented strictly and only to give the police a chance to excercise power against targeted persons and groups? “Vagrancy”, “disorderly conduct”, “no visible means of support”, etc.? Repealing all such laws would reduce the amount of power police could excercise.

    Reply
  14. KFritz

    Here’s an article by a progressive former high ranking FBI official about police reform by changing hiring practices. Recruiting ex-military is an important issue.

    https://www.msnbc.com/opinion/derek-chauvin-proves-america-still-hiring-exact-wrong-people-be-n1259960

    People in all walks of life tend to hire other people like themselves–but especially in tight-knit organizations like the police.

    Readers are invited to watch police recruiting videos at youtube to see the scope of the problem: lots of cops and robbers action footage, even in more humanistic videos.

    Reply
  15. Clark Landwehr

    The US is an extremely violent country. We glorify violent solutions. Why are we surprised the police are violent? The police are an easy target, but they are really just a reflection of our own cultural values.

    Reply

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