In a speech to American mayors last week, Biden made his priorities clear on how cities should spend emergency funding from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan clear: affordable housing, childcare and jobs, and police.
“We shouldn’t be cutting funding for police departments,” Biden said during the speech at the annual United States Conference of Mayors winter meeting on Jan. 21. “Look, we ask cops to do everything, including being psychologists and social workers. Guess what? They need psychologists and social workers.”
He argued American cities should invest more in their police departments so that they’re able to work better in communities. The comments were met with applause by the audience of mayors, many of whom had already made commitments along these lines. Several of the biggest cities in the US, including New York, Los Angeles, and Washington DC were already increasing their law enforcement budgets in 2021 as crime rates rose.
Only a year ago, more than 20 cities cut their police budgets, many in response to calls from protesters to divest from carceral systems after the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, and other examples of police brutality and racial injustice. Mayors and city councils made commitments to instead put this money towards community investments like housing and civilian safety programs that criminal justice reform advocates point to as solving the root issues of crime.
Under pressure to respond to rising crime, American politicians are returning to a familiar tool: bigger police budgets.
The trend of increasing police funding has taken hold across the US: One analysis by the Wall Street Journal found that among 20 largest local police departments in US, nearly half saw proposals for funding increases in the city’s 2022 budget.
In December 2021, San Francisco became the latest city to direct increased resources to police when mayor London Breed authorized emergency funding for police overtime as part of a larger action plan focused on a neighborhood in the city that has been especially plagued with drug use and other crime.
Just across the San Francisco Bay in Oakland, the city council, which had voted to slash $12 million from its police budget in the summer of 2020, ended up increasing the budget by about $39 million in the two-year budget passed in July 2021. On Jan. 24, New York City’s incoming mayor Eric Adams reintroduced a plan to bring back a controversial anti-crime unit of the NYPD that was disbanded in 2020 amid the protests.
The crime wave that US cities are facing is real. In 2020, the Federal Bureau of Investigations recorded an overal 6% increase in violent crime, and a 30% increase in murder in particular. It was the first time in four years violent crime trended up instead of down. Initial reports from individual cities in 2021 indicate that not much has changed in 2021: 12 cities broke local homicide records in 2021 including Philadelphia, Indianapolis, and Austin.
Yet the relationship between crime and police presence is less clear. For decades, scholars have studied whether putting more police on city streets lowers crime, and results have been mixed. A recent working paper published in the National Bureau of Economic Research found additional officers can translate to fewer homicides (specifically, each additional officer leads to 0.1 fewer homicides). But researchers have also found more police means more arrests for low-level offenses like drug possession or disorderly conduct, disproportionately harming Black populations. These types of arrests add additional burdens to individuals—for example, accruing court fees and having a criminal record—without necessarily making communities safer overall.
Now, the fundamental question for mayors is not whether police departments will get more funding. It’s how the money will be spent.
In his speech, Biden argued that police departments need to hire social workers, psychologists, and others skilled in managing mental health crises or deescalating violent situations. But many police reform advocates want to move these roles out of police departments arguing they should operate without the threat of lethal force from law enforcement.
Who will decide depends on the city. A few city councils in Los Angeles, Portland, and Minneapolis have invested in alternatives to traditional policing such as hiring mental health professionals to respond to people in crisis and drug treatment centers. A growing body of research, points to the efficacy of various community interventions at reducing violence, but these strategies have yet to be adopted widely across the US.
So far, many cities increasing their police budgets have signaled they will support some alternatives and supportive programs, while prioritizing federal dollars for more officers on the streets.