Why Austerity is Not the Solution to the Policing Crisis

“Defund the Police” is a powerful slogan. It articulates a vision of a better world that so many of us on the left want to live in. A world free from the arbitrary state violence on display in the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Eric Garner. At the same time, either implicitly or explicitly, it also expresses a strong desire to address the problems that afflict American society with redistribution instead of violence through the provisioning of public goods such as education, health care, housing, and the like. To be sure, I want more than anything to live in this world, one without policing and with robust social democratic programs like universal single-payer health care and guaranteed housing. However, the politics of defund the police is not how we get from here to there.    

Why Austerity is Not the Solution

The budgetary approach to the problem of the American carceral state is not new. As Marie Gottschalk details in her book, Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics, concern for the fiscal burden of prisons has arisen periodically in the past with the onset of economic crises, like the Reagan recession in 1980, the 2001 recession, and the Great Recession in 2008. The rationale behind reducing prison budgets is to force states to decrease their prison populations and close prisons in the name of restoring fiscal discipline: a supposed win-win for both deficit-conscious liberals and conservatives. The problem, however, is that incarcerated people lose in these so-called win-win scenarios. Instead of less prisoners and prisons, budget cuts have made prisons harsher institutions by forcing them to get rid of “luxuries” like television, reduce the number of meals served on weekends, roll-back services such as education programs, and increase inmate-to-staff ratios which lead to higher levels of violence in prisons.

Similarly, in terms of policing, there are many reasons to believe budget cuts will lead to worse policing instead of less policing.

First, “Defunding police budgets,” writes Dustin Guastella, “could in fact be one of the major causes of police violence.” Policing is labor intensive. Cutting police department budgets therefore means less training and less pay for police officers as well as less police officers. Without a simultaneous reduction in the workload of police departments, the result is underqualified, underpaid, and overworked police officers. It’s not hard to see how poorly trained and poorly paid police officers working longer shifts are likely to make decisions in interactions with civilians that result in serious harm (or worse).

Second, cutting budgets will intensify rather than curtail policing activities across the United States as police departments will try to make up for revenue shortfalls and avoid layoffs by taking advantage of civil forfeiture laws and charging fees. As Gottschalk explains, civil forfeiture laws permit police officers to seize property believed to be associated with criminal activity. The broad scope of asset forfeiture laws combined with few procedural protections allows for the mere suspicion of illegal activity with a very low bar for probable cause to be enough to seize cash, cars, and homes without a hearing or notice. In fact, assets can be subject to forfeiture even if “neither the owner nor anyone else has been charged with a crime and even in cases where a defendant is ultimately found innocent” (p. 35). Moreover, as Jackie Wang details in her book, Carceral Capitalism, police departments often respond to budget cuts by charging a number of fees for the act of arresting someone, regardless of a guilty conviction. For example, as Gottschalk notes, in St. Joseph, Missouri, the police department even bills defendants for the cost of tasering them during an arrest. So, not only do police departments therefore have an enormous financial stake in invasive and predatory policing activities but, in the face of budget cuts, there exist perverse incentives to double-down on existing practices and expand the range of criminalized human activities in order to generate revenue.

Third, given policing is labor intensive, budget cuts could result in the introduction of labor-saving technologies that are even more invasive and punitive than current policing practices. For instance, in cutting police department budgets, as Wang writes, “we may inadvertently be authorizing the birth of a more all-encompassing police state” by replacing police officers with low-cost surveillance technologies (p. 40). No longer bound by the limits of patrolling by car or foot, surveillance technologies allow for the easy expansion of the police state across space, making possible ever-greater intrusions into our everyday lives. So, even if police department budgets are cut, the possibility for the introduction of surveillance technologies means the potential for the police state to enhance its knowledge of our activities and, as such, the potential for the punitiveness of the police state to increase in its capacity to trap ever-increasing numbers of people.

Fourth, one of the most consistent consequences of public sector retrenchment is privatization. In fact, the process of police privatization is already on-going in a myriad of ways. For instance, Microsoft “is knee-deep in services for law enforcement” providing police departments with the infrastructure necessary to conduct mass surveillance operations and to support high-tech policing equipment. And, over the past decade, when police budgets have been cut, cities such as Detroit, Boston, and Oakland have hired private security forces to supplement their police departments. Not only does the privatization of policing further erode the already limited public accountability police departments face, similar to how the profitability of private prisons is dependent on incarcerating people for as long as possible and increasing the number of incarcerated people, the profitability of private police forces is dependent on the intensification and expansion of policing activities.

Why the Underfunding of Social Democracy is Not a Budget Error

The logic of defund the police dictates, either implicitly or explicitly, funding social democracy by simply moving money from one area of the budget to another. In reality, however, adequately funding progressive redistributive programs is not that simple. First, this approach to funding public programs starts from the wrong-headed assumption that penal policy and progressive social policy are equal in terms of their cost. As John Clegg and Adaner Usmani explain in their article on the economic origins of mass incarceration, “generous social policy will always far exceed the costs of relatively harsh penal policy” (p. 36). The reason is simple, penal policy is hyper-targeted while progressive social policy is either broad-based or universal. Meaning, it may be the case that it’s more expensive to incarcerate rather than educate a single person but, given the fact that far less people are incarcerated than educated in public schools, penal policy is actually cheaper on the whole. The same logic holds for policing, in addressing the problems associated with poverty, it’s much cheaper to hire a few more officers than improve the quality of education for every child in a school district, town, or city.

In the context of the United States, therefore, the question is: why are we stuck with the cheaper and inferior policy option? The reason, as Clegg and Usmani make clear, is rooted in the peculiar fiscal geography of the United States. First, given the main source of revenue for local governments are property taxes, it’s very difficult to raise property taxes to fund expensive progressive social programs as local governments are extremely vulnerable to the loss of their tax bases via capital flight and/or the flight of its rich residents. It’s very easy for businesses and the rich to simply move across boundaries to places with lower taxes. Second, the rich live in some areas and not in others. So, even if the mayor of a poor city was brazened enough to raise taxes to fund progressive social policies, the fact of the matter is that the mayor could never tax rich residents or businesses in the suburbs and exurbs. Third, and finally, as Adolph Reed Jr. points out in his book, Stirrings in the Jug: Black Politics in the Post-Segregation Era, the severe revenue constraints that local governments face actually compel them to mobilize police forces to produce the perception of safety that is necessary for the maintenance and attraction of tax revenue generating businesses and consumers. For all these reasons, in the United States, local governments are condemned to harsh penal policies in place of robust progressive social policies.

Conclusion: No Shortcuts, No Easy Victories 

The point of this piece is not to say police reform in particular, and social reform in general, is impossible. In fact, quite the opposite. But, so long as we’re talking about reform, it’s important to recognize not all reforms are created equal: some are good, others are bad. Defund the police is a bad reform because, for those of us who embrace the political project of the left, it moves us farther away from a more democratic, egalitarian, and humane alternative to the status quo of neoliberal capitalism. In my view, in terms of police reform, pursuing a policy agenda of less policing, which includes a combination legalization, decriminalization, and demilitarization, moves us toward the world we want to live in. Meaning, simultaneously narrowing the scope of policing activities while reducing the capacity for police to be violent. A few examples of how this can be achieved include legalizing sex work, ending the war on drugs, ending the war on the poor, ending the war on immigrants,  and ending the war on terror while, at the same time, ending federal programs that channel surplus military equipment to police departments and disarming police officers. In terms of winning progressive redistributive policies like universal single-payer health care or guaranteed housing, what is necessary is a multi-racial, multi-gender working class coalition strong enough to win power and tax the rich at the national level. Unfortunately, anything less, whether it be street protests or locally-based ‘defund the police’ organizations, however righteous and noble, will not achieve the desired outcomes.

Casey Buchholz is a PhD student, Department of Economics at UMass-Amherst. He tweets at @caseyrbuchholz.

Photo by Erick Zajac.

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