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Governments in America’s largest counties tend to spend more money per capita on law enforcement than smaller counties, according to data compiled by the US Census Bureau.
Following the killing of George Floyd in May, police defunding — the idea of cutting law enforcement budgets and reallocating the funds to services like social services and education — has become a national issue. The Census Bureau’s 2017 financial data of more than 88,000 local governments, from cities to counties to school districts, shows how communities prioritize law enforcement compared to other relevant areas such as public health, child and social services, and aid to the disadvantaged. Local government takes different forms across the country, including many counties having both county sheriff operations as well as city police departments.
State and local governments spent $193 billion on law enforcement and corrections in 2017. Local governments were responsible for $129 billion, or two-thirds of that spending. Law enforcement spending ranks behind education ($684 billion) as the second-largest spending category for local government budgets.
Combined, all local governments across the country, on average, spent $340 per person on law enforcement. That changes in counties of varying sizes and demographics. That’s 9.2% of all local government spending or a fifth of what’s spent locally on education (48.6% of spending or $2,106 per person). It's also more than twice that of public health (4% or $174 per person).
|Category||Per Capita Spending (2017)|
|Law Enforcement (Police and Corrections)||$397|
|Standard of Living and Aid to the Disadvantaged||$163|
|Child and Social Services||$114|
In the 25 most populous counties—counting New York City’s five boroughs as a single county—local governments spent $573 per resident on law enforcement – which includes both police services and corrections. In the next 303 most populous counties, all with at least 200,000 residents, law enforcement spending stood at $388 per person.
Individually, how local governments spend their money and prioritize services could depend on a variety of factors, including demographics, politics, funding, the outcomes of any previous spending, and the array of services that state and federal governments provide.
Among the largest 25 counties, Broward County, Fla. spends the highest share of its local government budgets (18.2% or $723 per person) on law enforcement. The county spent less than average on education (37.4% of the total budget) but higher than average spending on child and social services (4.4%).
New York City, where the city government oversees all five of its boroughs, spends 7.3% of its budget on law enforcement. The city government spends 30.6% of its money on education and 12.4% on social services and aid to the disadvantaged combined.
New York City spent $898 per capita on law enforcement, highest among the 25 largest counties. Among all counties with more than 200,000 people, only two spent more on law enforcement per capita: Washington, DC ($1,136 per person), and nearby Nassau County, NY ($949).
The 25 largest counties generally spent more in total than smaller counties. Excluding pension and debt payments, these governments spent $5,975 per person. In the other 303 counties, local governments spent $3,974 per person.
While there is a correlation between law enforcement spending and population, there are also multiple examples of counties going against the trend. Governments in Bexar County, Texas, home to San Antonio and nearly 2 million residents, spent $298 per person on law enforcement and $3,906 per person in total. The city of St. Louis, which as an independent city functions as its own county, spent $795 per person on law enforcement and $6,764 per person in total. St. Louis has a population of just 308,000.
The differences in local government budgets show how different counties have different priorities. Not only does the per-person spending amounts matter to suggest how much a community is willing to spend on a service, but the share of spending on each service matters as well. Understanding the amount and portion of the spending that law enforcement makes up can help inform an understanding if that spending is too much, too little or just the right amount.
The data cited in this report is an aggregation of the US Census Bureau’s 2017 State & Local Government Finance Historical Datasets. The dataset breaks down spending and revenue of city governments, county governments, school districts, and special districts. Each government has multiple line items related to different categories of spending. These line items were categorized based on coding in the census data. Pension payments are separated from other categories.
Governments were grouped into counties in which they were based. These groupings are necessary to account for all types of services in a given geography. For example, most city governments have a police department, but there are fewer cities with budgets overseeing K-12 education. One county, Honolulu County, did not have any education spending as in Hawaii K-12 education is handled by the state. The 328 counties compared in this piece all had populations of more than 200,000.
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