In response to the deaths of African Americans at the hands of police, some cities have cut police department funding and shifted the revenue to social and community programs. Do you support or oppose this reallocation of money, known as 'defunding the police'?
Of those that responded, 51 percent were “strongly opposed.” Another 13 percent were “somewhat opposed.”
Each and every one of those respondents were wrong.
It’s not the first time this has happened. An even larger majority of Nevadans voted in favor of Question 2 in 2000 and 2002, which wrote a ban on same-sex marriage into the state Constitution. At least we’ll get a chance to undo that in the ballot box this year when we vote, appropriately enough, in favor of Question 2.
Being generous to the supermajority of Nevadans for a moment, however, if you ask most people if putting more police on the streets leads to less crime, they’d answer emphatically in the affirmative. It’s simple common sense. If you have 10 criminals and only one police officer, more criminals will get away than if you have, say, two police officers or even 10. How could this not be true?
Don’t ask me. Ask the FBI.
According to the FBI’s Crime Data Explorer, in 1999, there were 4,525 police officers statewide, policing an estimated population of 1,814,905 Nevadans — just under 250 police officers for every 100,000 Nevadans. Twenty years later, there were 5,549 police officers statewide, policing an estimated population of 3,086,380 Nevadans — just under 180 police officers for every 100,000 Nevadans. That means, for every City of Sparks’ worth of Nevadans, there are now 70 fewer police officers on the streets than there were 20 years ago.
Naturally, the FBI’s data shows crime has skyrocketed over the past two decades, right?
Huh. Looks like crime went down.
Okay, that’s not entirely fair. The level of violent crime is considerably less than the level of property crime, so large relative increases in violent crime — for example, the 44 percent increase in violent crime that occurred between 2000 and 2007 — are impossible to see in that graph. Let’s just compare the ratio of police officers to violent crime rates; perhaps we’ll see the expected relationship there:
On the one hand, this matches our intuitions somewhat. Increasing violent crime rates led to a corresponding increase in police hiring, which then appears to have led to a corresponding drop in violent crime. We see that pattern occur after a peak in violent crime in 2007 and another, smaller peak in 2015.
On the other hand, we would also expect corresponding drops in police employment to lead to fairly immediate increases in violent crime. Instead, there seems to be a solid half-decade lag (at the very least) between a decline in police officers per Nevadan and a noticeable increase in violent crime.
Crucially, police employment and violent crime were both lower in 2019 than they were in any prior year in the past two decades.
Now let’s just examine the relationship between property crime rates and the ratio of police officers:
Here again there’s a period of decreasing police employment corresponding to a period of increased property crime between 2001 and 2007. After 2007, however, both property crime rates and police employment have largely fallen together. Since the Great Recession, there appears to be no correlation at all between the ratio of police officers per Nevadan and property crime rates.
In fairness, however, the poll didn’t ask whether people supported depopulating police departments. The poll asked whether people supported defunding police departments. Even RoboCop is considerably more expensive to employ than, say, a police sergeant.
What’s the relationship between police funding and crime?
Using the Urban Institute’s State and Local Government Finance Data tool, which has police expenditure data up to 2017, we can compare police expenditures per capita (how much each of us, including our children, pay, on average, for police expenses statewide, adjusted for inflation) against the crime rate and see if there’s a relationship:
As before, the property crime rate (which, again, decreased steadily over the past two decades regardless of what resources we put into policing) is high enough to potentially hide any relationship between violent crime and police spending, so let’s graph that relationship as well:
Once again, violent crime rose while police expenditures rose, then fell while police expenditures fell following the Great Recession. The only point in the last two decades that supports Clark County Sheriff Lombardo’s assertion that, and I quote, defunding the police “ends with fewer cops on the streets and crime numbers dramatically up,” is the period between 2013 and 2017, when a modest increase in police funding arguably may have triggered a precipitous fall in violent crime rates.
After the Great Recession, Nevada did indeed embrace a radical idea. We cut police department funding and shifted the revenue to nothing — or, more accurately, we shifted it back to the people by failing to forcibly extract steadily increasing police budgets from Nevadans’ wallets via taxation. Since there weren't the tax funds to do so, there were no corresponding increases in social and community health funding during that time period. That was a considerably more Libertarian solution than what advocates for defunding the police are actually proposing. Even so, even though we replaced police funding with nothing — absolutely nothing — our crime rates were and still remain lower after the Great Recession than they were at its start.
Today’s proponents of defunding the police are asking for something considerably more modest and more moderate. Now that we’ve proven by sheer economic necessity that there is no meaningful relationship between police spending and public safety, they would like to see whether increasing funding for mental health and social programs might do the trick instead.
For what it’s worth, I’m skeptical that will do the trick, either. However, I’m a lot less skeptical of that proposal than I am of the notion that we should, to borrow a phrase from Steve Grammas, president of the state’s largest police union, “be overly funding police departments, never defunding.”
We already overly funded police departments. Then we defunded them. Now we’re safer — and we have the data to prove it.
David Colborne has been active in the Libertarian Party for two decades. During that time, he has blogged intermittently on his personal blog, as well as the Libertarian Party of Nevada blog, and ran for office twice as a Libertarian candidate. He serves on the Executive Committee for both his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is the father of two sons and an IT professional. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne or email him at [email protected].