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Since #DefundThePolice is gaining strength but a lot of people don’t have much background in public finance, here are a few thoughts from a government budget analyst just to get you started: 1/
Many agencies post their budget documents online these days, either on the department website or on a central site (like a city manager’s page or the CFO or Office of Budget). Google is your friend. If your jurisdiction DOESN’T post their info online, THAT’S YOUR FIRST DEMAND 2/
Try to read the actual budget, not just a summary or overview presentation. All budgets are political, but it’s a lot easier to spin/obscure in a summary, where you can omit data or roll things up, than in the full documents that legislative bodies use to make actual decisions 3/
Remember that sometimes you need to look beyond just the police department. Some jurisdictions split policing powers among the PD, a sheriff’s office, a parole/probation office, and maybe others. If you look just at 1, you could be missing a lot of law enforcement resources 4/
Budgets can be complex & agencies like it that way b/c it helps them avoid oversight. If you don’t understand, demand an explanation. Call your PD’s public affairs office or elected officials’ offices & ask for a staffer who can answer budget Q’s. It’s their job to help you 5/
You can also look for outside input. If you still have local press, there should be someone plugged in to municipal/state politics. The poly sci department of your state university might have a public finance expert. Or put your request out on twitter to crowdsource an answer 6/
Government budgets should have at least 4 major elements: sources of funds, spending by expense type, spending by activity, and performance metrics (more on each of these below). If your PD’s budget doesn’t report all of these things, THAT’S YOUR SECOND DEMAND 7/
#1: SOURCES OF FUNDS. Do they get tax dollars (often called ‘general fund’), fees, grants, special assessments? Some of those streams are easier to turn off than others, and some come with conditions/restrictions that could be influencing your police department’s behavior 8/
Ask whether there are sources that aren’t reported. Some budgets focus only on appropriated money for the next fiscal year and omit other major resources that are still available for use, like unspent $ from a prior year, forfeited assets that the police can keep or sell, etc. 9/
#2: SPENDING BY EXPENSE TYPE (or ‘object class’). This tells you how much is spent on personnel (pay, benefits, overtime) & non-personnel (supplies, travel, contracts). Better budgets have more detail, which lets you ask more Q’s (who is getting these contract dollars?) 10/
Be alert to how much is spent on personnel. This is likely tied to a police union contract. That doesn’t mean you can’t cut it—in fact, you won’t get big savings or reduced police presence w/out tackling personnel costs—but contract renegotiations may be needed to implement. 11/
#3: SPENDING BY ACTIVITY. You should get to see amounts for patrol services v. investigations v. admin/management and whether those amounts are going up or down from the prior year. Where they want to add $ tells you more about your PD’s priorities than anything else. 12/
Look for how many $ are going to vice, drugs, property crimes, i.e., non-violent offenses that drive mass incarceration. Police try to say that cuts will force them to ignore murder or rape, but you can disprove that by knowing how little they really spend on violent crime. 13/
Other good line items to look at as possible cuts: school resource officers (i.e, cops in schools) and “special operations” or “special response” teams, which is where you’ll likely have the military grade equipment and the SWAT-style officers we’ve seen lately at protests. 14/
A sobering line item to look for: internal affairs (sometimes called “professional responsibility” or a similar euphemism). This is who polices the police, and the minimal investments here really reflect the lack of priority on holding officers accountable for their conduct. 15/
#4: PERFORMANCE METRICS. Thanks to Al Gore, many governments report these along with their budgets. They are annual metrics that define “success” for an agency and are typically shown with the prior year’s actual data and then a “target” for the next year. 16/
These metrics can bust some popular police myths, like the idea that police are effective at solving crimes. Many agencies report “clearance rates” for various crime categories and they are often not very good. What are we paying for if cases aren’t being resolved? 17/
In my experience, it is rare to see any metrics related to misconduct (alleged/substantiated misconduct, deaths/injuries in custody) even though this is obviously valuable and important data. But PD’s won’t report a metric that makes them look bad unless they are forced to. 18/
Be alert to metrics that incentivize bad behaviors (e.g. # of arrestees whose gang affiliations are identified. What happens if you aren’t ID’ing enough arrestees as gang affiliated to meet your target? Maybe you start labeling people as gang-affiliated even if they aren’t) 19/
You can ask for your departments to get rid of BS metrics and report the things that you care about. Performance budgets create an annual public record of what the department is doing, and agencies generally try to do well on the metrics that the public sees. 20/
Once you have thoughts on the budget, you can communicate them in several ways. You can send your input to your elected officials and ASK FOR SOMEONE TO FOLLOW UP WITH YOU ABOUT YOUR REQUEST. Don’t settle for form letter responses; try to make them engage you on the details. 21/
Also, many jurisdictions offer specific days for the public to formally present their opinions on the budget to a city/county council or a state legislative committee. Contact the body that has control over the budget you’re interested in, and ask about these opportunities. 22/
Get friends to come with you and have as many people as possible echo your points. A lot of policy gets determined by who shows up, and a relatively small number of people can have a big impact if they’re well organized. 23/
Budgets are cyclical, but once they’re done for the year it is very difficult to get them changed mid-stream. So find out when your jurisdiction’s fiscal year runs (why are they all different??), when are the major budget cycle milestones, and dive in! 24/END
I’m not a super active twitter user, but I’m glad people are finding this a useful entry point into your local resource allocation processes. Meaningful change comes from people in the streets and people in the voting booth, but hopefully people in the budget hearing can help!
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