Across the country, advocates are calling to cut police budgets in response to widespread misconduct made visible by videos of police killing unarmed civilians, disproportionately Black Americans, Indigenous people and people of color. Many attempts at police reform have failed to meaningfully change the harmful culture and practices of policing, and even with outsized public investment in law enforcement, public safety problems persist. Concerned residents and advocates call for reallocating money from police departments into services and programs that improve public safety in safer, more equitable, and more cost-effective ways, while simultaneously addressing key community issues such as racial equity, mental health, and prosperity for all.
This policy report begins by examining the police budget in the City of Buffalo, finding:
- Since 2006, spending on police has increased by 57%.
- The size of the police force has trended downward during this time; the increase in police spending is not from an increase in personnel numbers but personnel costs.
- Buffalo has an above-average number of police officers, when compared to cities with similar population, poverty rates, and crime rates.
- The operating police budget ($86 million) dwarfs city spending on most other services, including Citizen Services ($805,000), Youth Services ($2.97 million), and Workforce Employment and Training ($183,000).
The report then explores research on whether a larger police force reduces crime, finding:
- The general consensus among social scientists is that the overall number of police officers has a small and uncertain effect on crime.
- Evidence from Buffalo and around the nation shows that a decline in the number of police officers does not lead automatically to an increase in crime.
- In Buffalo, over the last decade, the size of the force has gone down slightly, but crime rates have held steady or declined.
- Reported Part 1 crimes (violent crime such as a murder, manslaughter, rape, and robbery) declined by 17% between 2012 and 2015, even as the size of the police force was reduced by 67 officers over the same time period. In the same period, reported incidents of crimes of any type also declined.
- In 2009, the earliest year available for crime incident data on Buffalo’s Open Data portal, 21,786 crimes were reported. This number has declined almost every year since, to 12,022 in 2020.
- Overall, the time period between 2006 and 2020 tells a story: the size of the police force fluctuated but remained roughly the same, funding for the police increased, while reported incidents of crime of any type and violent crime all decreased, along with the number and rate of arrests. At the same time, 911 calls remained about the same and traffic citations increased.
The author examines how police spend their time, concluding that the majority of police time is spent responding to noncriminal matters, largely routine traffic stops and traffic accidents.
Looking for lessons from other cities, the report notes that New York City, Austin, Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, Minneapolis, Denver, Dallas, San Francisco, Baltimore, Oakland, Boston, Berkley, Salt Lake City, Milwaukee, Durham, Philadelphia and Chicago all made cuts to their city police budgets in the last year.
Cities used the following approaches to reallocate funds from punitive policing:
- Cutting outsized overtime.
- Hiring freezes and attrition policies (not filling positions left vacant as officers retire).
- Moving money by re-assigning police functions such as Homeless Engagement to other city departments.
In addition to these funding cuts, the report looks at larger-scale strategies to invest in community-led safety, including:
- Traffic Safety - use existing, concrete solutions to the problem of traffic safety that do not involve the police. Investing in traffic calming infrastructure like speed bumps and street design is more effective and in the long term cheaper than paying police to enforce traffic laws. In Seattle for example, a redesign of a busy street cut the number of drivers going 10mph over the speed limit by 92% in one direction and 96% in the other direction. In addition, uniformed, unarmed city employees could be used to issue tickets and respond to routine infractions, not the police.
- Behavioral Health - many cities have begun implementing an alternative response to mental health crises by sending mental health professionals instead of police as first responders. In Buffalo, there is also a great need to include drug use in the same health system response.
- Other Non-Criminal Issues - noise complaints, neighbor disputes, wellness checks, homelessness and other quality of life social problems are among the many non-criminal complaints that police forces are called on to deal with in most parts of the country. In reality, many calls for service that come through emergency 911 lines that do not involve a threat of violence or serious law breaking could be handled by uniformed civilian city employees with the power to issue citations and appearance tickets. Many issues and incidents can also be handled by non-profit community organizations, as recommended below, particularly those with trained conflict resolution specialists skilled in mediation and harm reduction.
- Violence Prevention - action must be taken at the individual, family, community and societal levels to adequately address the complex and intertwined root causes of violence. Policing, in general, addresses only the individual level by temporarily removing a person who causes harm and ushering that person into the legal system. Policymakers who wish to make a real impact to reduce violence must go beyond this limited approach and take action on other levels.
- Youth Diversion - in 2019, Buffalo Police made over 1,000 arrests of people between 13 and 20 years old. This age group accounted for 9% of all misdemeanor and 15% of all felony arrests that year. Many of these low-level incidents could be handled handled outside of the legal system, avoiding an arrest record and involvement in the criminal justice system that leads to worse outcomes and obstacles later in life.
Each of these alternatives to policing is outlined in greater detail in the report, which then turns to other long-term investments with public safety benefits, including green space and crime prevention through environmental design, lead poisoning prevention, and ensuring residents' basic needs are met.
By redirecting city funds away from policing and into public services that support health, housing, education and jobs, Buffalo residents will have more opportunities to thrive. The report makes the following recommendations to advance this vision:
- Erie County should develop a county-wide mental health emergency response team comprised of mental health professionals to act as on-site first response teams during mental health emergencies.
- The City of Buffalo should invest in Just Streets, which means using design and traffic calming infrastructure (instead of surveillance and police) to keep streets safe.
- The City should allocate funding through an RFP process to non-profit community organizations to respond to non-emergency quality-of-life complaints more quickly and effectively, especially around environmental and neighborhood level issues.
- Mayor Brown and the Common Council should begin the work of right-sizing the police force and police budget by instituting a hiring freeze for at least a year on all new cadets and academy classes.
- The Buffalo Police Department, when faced with fewer resources and personnel, should refocus efforts on responding to issues that directly relate to serious violations of the law.
Read more about each of these recommendations by downloading the report above.
This report was written by Colleen Kristich, LMSW, a Community Researcher at Partnership for the Public Good.