Calls to defund police departments intensified after George Floyd was killed in the custody of the Minneapolis Police Department. But just how big are these budgets? A new infographic looks at the actual cost to cities across the country—and it’s huge.
The Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit working to make the justice system more equitable, worked with design agency Hyperakt to create a graphic called “What Policing Costs.” It allows you to peek into the books of 72 U.S. cities, seeing how much they spend on policing and adjusting how much money you would (hypothetically) allocate to various functions within the police department.
There’s no central database for police budgets across the country, so volunteers at the Vera Institute looked at local budget documents in 72 cites, manually recorded 2,699 rows of data, and centralized it to create this searchable tool. Users can explore police budgets through four key data points: overall budget, percent of city funds spent on policing, city money spent on police per resident, and the police-to-resident ratio. You can also directly compare the numbers to see how cities stack up against one another.
Over the past few months, a slew of cities have announced budget and policy changes, from eliminating police contracts with public schools to reallocating funds to increased transparency. Minneapolis has proposed amending its city charter to replace the police department with a community-oriented public safety system. That proposal could be on the November ballot; in the meantime, the city has reallocated $1 million from the MPD budget.
For police reform advocates, there’s a lot farther to go in order to instill real, community-oriented approaches to safety, which the Vera Institute’s graphic makes clear in zeroes and ones. “Looking at city data comparatively, there are some interesting trends,” says Deroy Peraza, partner and creative director of Hyperakt. “The best number to look at here is the amount of money a city spends for police per city resident.” This per capita measurement puts Baltimore, Maryland; Wilmington, Delaware; and Washington, D.C., at the top of the list.
Peraza also recommends looking at overall spending. It makes sense that the three largest cities in the U.S. top that list, but with a budget of over $11 billion, New York City is a clear outlier in terms of overall numbers. It’s more than six times the next biggest budget, Chicago, which allocates about $1.7 billion to its police department. With this perspective, the $1 million that Minneapolis is reallocating is a tiny fraction of its total of $193 million budget.
The percentage of the overall city budget that’s dedicated to policing is worth noting too, says Peraza. It reveals “both that cities have very different economic realities and that the amount of priority they place on funding policing varies tremendously.” With that in mind, this tool is a useful way to experiment with reducing police budgets, though it doesn’t show how that money could be reallocated.
The biggest takeaway from the Vera Institute’s graphic is that just looking at one piece of data won’t give you the full picture. “People have a tendency of focusing on the bottom line totals,” Peraza says. “But if those numbers aren’t put in scale relative to the size of the population they can be misleading.” But with the right tool, we just might be a step closer to transparency.