Defunding the Police is Not the Answer

Mason Primrose, Contributing Writer

Defund WPD has called for $4 million in cuts to the Worcester Police budget, believing that the money would better serve Worcester being spent on housing, health, and education. This is not a phenomenon unique to Worcester, with major cities such as New York and Los Angeles fighting their own police budget battles. But activists are taking the wrong approach in targeting police budgets. It is unclear if Defund WPD believes that the $4 million increase to social programs would be effective in offsetting the gains in crime from the decreased police presence across Worcester. To get a better idea of what these proposed cuts to police spending would really look like, we have to take a closer look at past WPD spending. 

According to the most recent Worcester city budget, $52.8 million is spent each year on the police, with $45.25 million spent on salaries and $4.6 million in overtime pay comprising 89.8% of total police spending. The remaining money goes into only $2.7 million in maintenance costs and $637 thousand to capital outlay. Capital outlay being for keeping equipment and maintaining other capital, it is effectively a fixed cost in the short to mid-term along with the other maintenance costs. Even in the long term, it is unlikely that any significant portion of the cut funding would come from maintenance and capital outlay. At least in the short to mid-term, this funding would come almost entirely from the salaries and overtime of police officers. Overtime will be relatively inflexible, with over half being spent on regular overtime and investigatory overtime. So let’s take a closer look at where police salary money is going.

According to the numbers from the budget, most of the salaries not going out to police officers are going to only 58 other employees, most of these being workers that are one of the only ones in the department working their jobs, including senior crime analysts, forensic scientists, lab workers, and various assistance jobs. It is unlikely that any of the funding will be cut from these workers, and instead will be directed mainly to standard police officers. Assuming that the cut came entirely out of normal, average police officer salaries, and did not affect any sergeants or higher-ranking police, a $4 million cut could result in 48 police off the streets, around 10.6% of the total officers, or 13.3% of the standard police officers. This represents a massive decline in physical, numerical police presence across Worcester.

Worcester, especially our home in Main South, is far from the safest place to live in terms of crime. In 2019, Worcester had a violent crime rate of 6.47 per thousand residents. For context, this is higher than in four out of five boroughs of New York City, higher than Austin, higher than Seattle, and certainly higher than Providence, a city with a population far closer to Worcester’s own.

(Source: The City of Worcester Fiscal Year 2021 Annual Operating Budget)

There is compelling evidence that police reduce crime, especially violent crime, according to studies from Princeton and the National Bureau of Economic Research. After the COPS program provided grants to fund police in high crime cities, it was found that an increase in police officers directly resulted in a sharp reduction in crime, and it has been found that police officers reduce violent crime even more than property crime. A reduction of nearly 50 police officers from the Worcester Police would almost certainly cause a spike in violent crime as other cities, such as Seattle, Los Angeles, and New York City, have experienced. Underestimating the importance of police presence in reducing crime is the first mistake activists make when they try to defund the police.

The second mistake is assuming that funding the police and funding social services is a zero-sum game. Spending can be increased on social services without decreasing police funding, and vice versa. We just need to raise the money somehow, and it’s clearly possible. For example, according to the BBC, Amazon paid an effective income tax of only 9.4% last year, and then-President Trump famously paid a paltry $750. With smart government policy, it is absolutely possible to raise additional tax revenues to fund social programs, including that for additional spending on the housing, education, and health programs activists have been pushing for. More locally, our home state of Massachusetts has a flat income tax which could be changed. The city of Worcester has the potential to increase revenues to fund social services through revenues from Polar Park, or from additional levies on products such as marijuana, which is set at only half of the maximum rate of 6%.

Targeting police budgets is simply the wrong approach to police reform. Defunding the police will almost certainly result in increased crime rates as a result of a massively reduced police presence, and it isn’t even necessary to fund the programs we want. Depending on the changes you want in policing, more money may be necessary to preserve the number of police. For example, body cameras have been shown to be effective in reducing negative interactions with police officers, though these do cost money for the cameras and infrastructure needed to effectively use them. The same applies to various types of training that could also help reduce police misconduct. The push should not be to defund the police and fund social programs, but instead to fund social programs and hold police accountable for their actions to reduce police misconduct.