United States Continuing to Overspend on Police, Despite Decreasing Crime Rates
New Report shows U.S. spends over $100 billion a year on policing, frequently at the expense of communities of color and more effective public safety strategies

Despite crime rates being at their lowest levels in more than 30 years, the U.S. continues to maintain large and increasingly militarized police units, spending more than $100 billion every year, according to a report released today by the Justice Policy Institute. Police forces have grown from locally-funded public safety initiatives into a federally subsidized jobs program, with a decreasing focus on community policing and growing concerns about racial profiling and “cuffs for cash,” with success measured not by increased safety and well-being but by more arrests.

Rethinking the Blues: How we police in the U.S. and at what cost, highlights the negative effects of over-policing by detailing how law enforcement efforts contribute to a criminal justice system that disconnects people from their communities, fills prisons and jails, and costs taxpayers billions. The report also highlights both alternatives to improve public safety and examples of effective community policing efforts.

“With an increase in police surveillance – from traffic cameras, to police video equipment monitoring certain neighborhoods, to the use of drones – as well as the continued presence of over 714,000 police officers, the U.S. has become too reliant on punitive approaches to public safety and not enough on alternatives,” stated Paul Ashton, a primary author of the report. “And with the combination of dropping crime rates and performance measured by number of arrests, police are devoting more and more time to arresting people for drug abuse offenses.” Ashton also pointed out that with the number of laws criminalizing various behaviors skyrocketing – there are about fifty percent more offenses in the federal code now than there were in the early 1980’s – police often feel compelled to enforce a variety of laws that may or may not have a real impact on public safety.

“We need to return to more community-centered law enforcement,” said Tracy Velázquez, JPI’s Executive Director, “and adopt a more balanced approach to how we spend dollars to make our communities safer – one that includes more treatment and other services that can keep people from coming into contact with police in the first place. And in tight economic times, the reality is if we keep overspending on police, we’ll have fewer resources available for other more effective public safety strategies.”

The report also highlights the disparate impact of our current policing on communities of color. Although African Americans comprise 13 percent of the population, they make up 31 percent of arrests for drug offenses.  Overall, blacks are arrested at over twice the rate per capita as whites. There are a number of reasons for this, but concentrating more police in certain neighborhoods, and subjective practices such as New York City’s ‘stop and frisk’ program, play a large role in funneling more people of color into the justice system. This ultimately results in higher rates of incarceration, and more people with diminished life prospects due to the challenges formerly incarcerated people face after release.

Rethinking the Blues: How we police in the U.S. and at what cost also describes effective law enforcement efforts, including Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) that helps officers more safely interface with people experiencing a mental health crisis, and redirect them to the public health system; Seattle’s LEAD program, which utilizes a harm-reduction approach that diverts people to treatment and services; and Washington, D.C.’s Lesbian and Gay Unit, which turned a police department that had a poor relationship with the LGBT community into one that has had a significant impact on the safety of this community and helped increase the recognition of same-sex domestic violence in the D.C. area. The report also includes recommendations on alternatives to prevailing policies and practices that will improve community safety and well-being:

  • Reform laws and sentencing so police don’t have to pick and choose.
    State and federal policymakers must take sentencing reform seriously, reducing the harmful impacts of harsh sentences, and must examine both drug laws and those related to other lesser offenses to determine where they might be rolled back or eliminated completely.
  • Reallocate resources to positive social investments proven to improve public safety.
    Research shows that investing in services and programs that keep people out of the justice system is more effective at improving public safety and promoting community well-being than investing in law enforcement. For example, a Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP) study found that spending one dollar in community-based drug treatment yields over $18 in cost savings in terms of increased public safety and monetary savings; a dollar spent on drug treatment in prison yields nearly $6 in savings. Funding programs in the community yields a higher return on the investment.
  • Focus law enforcement on the most serious offenses. Arrests for low-level offenses have less of an impact on public safety, but still use up considerable law enforcement resources. Focusing law enforcement efforts on the more serious offenses will allow officers to use their resources more effectively, thereby improving public safety.
  • Implement policies that allow police to issue citations over arrests for certain offenses.
    A number of cities across the country have started to recognize the waste involved in arresting people for certain low-level offenses, which result in people spending days and sometimes longer in jails. As such, they have started using a citation rather than arrest system for certain low-level offenses, including possession of small amounts of marijuana, public intoxication or disturbing the peace. These options allow police and the courts to focus their resources on more serious offenses and save taxpayers the cost of housing someone in a jail for a non-serious offense. Although citations can still have a disproportionate impact on communities unable to pay the citation, there should be an overall reduction in the number of people arrested and filtered into the justice system for minor offenses.

To read Rethinking the Blues: How we police in the U.S. and at what cost, CLICK HERE. For additional information, please contact Zerline Hughes at (202) 558-7974 x308 or [email protected].

The Justice Policy Institute, based in Washington, DC, is working to reduce the use of incarceration and the justice system and promote policies that improve the well-being of all people and communities.For more JPI reports on the criminal justice system, please visit our website at www.justicepolicy.org