|Date:||December 3, 2020|
By Geoff Kelly | December 3, 2020
In August the Partnership for the Public Good hosted a presentation on the growth of Buffalo’s police budget over the past 15 years. One conclusion: As the cost of policing has ballooned, spending on other city departments has suffered.
Investigative Post analyzed city budget documents from 2006 to the present. During that period:
City revenues have failed to keep pace with inflation, too. Between 2006 and 2019, revenues rose $77.4 million. That may sound like a lot, but it’s just two-thirds the rate of inflation.
Revenues have fallen short of expenses consistently during the Brown administration, in part because Brown has chosen to keep property taxes down in the hopes of luring new investment and residents to the city. The result has been steady deficits, which Brown has plugged by spending down the city’s reserves.
Colleen Kristich, a researcher with Partnership for the Public Good, is working on a policy paper, to be published early in the new year, analyzing ways to reduce spending on police. In an interview with Investigative Post, Kristich suggested even small cuts in the police budget could be redirected to city programs that hypothetically reduce criminality.
As an example, she pointed out two appropriations in this year’s police budget: about $345,000 for furniture and $153,000 for office supplies.
The allocation for office supplies alone could employ three new youth vocational counselors at the city’s Workforce & Education Training program, for which funding has been effectively stagnant the past 15 years. The program currently employs one youth counselor. According to budget documents, the program receives 32,000 visits from jobseekers each year.
“The furniture and equipment budget could probably quadruple the size of the Mayor’s Summer Youth Program,” Kristich told Investigative Post.
But the real savings are not to be found around the margins of the police budget, she said. Nor does she suggest the police department should do without chairs and paper clips.
To really shrink the police budget, she said, the city should work to reduce overtime and court time costs. The city should also reduce the number of officers. The city could achieve those goals, according to Kristich, through policy decisions.
First, she said, the city should stop budgeting for cops who aren’t going to be hired. The current budget calls for 798 sworn officers; only 740 are currently on the job. City officials frequently include unfilled vacancies in budgets in order to create financial flexibility. But the practice has the effect of denying scarce city resources to other departments.
Second, she said, the city should institute a police hiring freeze. The city should reduce the force by not replacing officers as they retire, until the number of cops on the job reaches 700, matching its recent low in 2010.
Those measures would save money immediately, as well as reduce future pension liabilities. They would require contract concessions from the police union.
But fewer cops is not an easy sell for elected officials.
“On one of my streets just a couple days ago, a young man was shot and killed,” Wyatt told Investigative Post last month. “How are you going to go tell people in that community that we’re going to have less police?”
Since Brown took office in 2006, the number of sworn officers has fluctuated between 700 and 800.
“There aren’t the numbers there used to be,” Rivera said. “You’ll realize that when you need them.”
Rivera said he frequently fields calls from constituents complaining that police take too long nowadays to answer 911 calls. Wyatt said he hears the same complaints in his district.
“I know the residents in my district probably wouldn’t want me to talk about defunding the police, because they believe — and I believe — we need more police,” Wyatt said.
At the same time, he said, the city’s financial situation may compel city officials to pursue police reforms advanced this summer by activists and progressive think tanks like Partnership for the Public Good.
“I think we have an opportunity to right-size our police department, as well as right-size government,” he said.
The number of 911 calls for Buffalo police per capita didn’t change between 2006 and 2019, according to the Partnership for Public Good research, indicating that more money spent on police has not reduced crime. The number of arrests has been steady, and the clearance rate for homicides is about the same.
There is also the question of how highly compensated, expensively trained, armed police officers are deployed.
In her research, Kristich cites a US Department of Justice study indicating patrol officers spend 70 percent of their time on non-criminal matters.
“If police are removed from certain 911 calls (behavioral health and non-criminal things) and replaced with alternate first responders, [the number of patrol officers] could shrink a lot,” Kristich wrote.
In 2019, more than 24,000 calls to 911 were related to traffic stops. Another 8,000 calls were complaints about illegally parked cars.
“When you talk about someone calling the police because someone is parked slightly in their driveway, is that a good use of their time?” Wyatt said. “No, it’s not.”
Read the full story on the Investigative Post website here.