Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Police Were Defunded Before George Floyd

253 municipalities in state cut police funding in 2019 for budget reasons, report finds.

By - Aug 18th, 2021 03:22 pm
Police. Photo by Matty Ring. (CC BY 2.0)

Police. Photo by Matty Ring. (CC BY 2.0)

The call for police defunding, which arose in the wake of George Floyd‘s killing in May 2020 by a police office in Minneapolis, has created controversy across the nation. In Wisconsin, Republicans passed legislation, which was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, which would have reduced state shared revenue payments to municipalities that decreased their spending on police and fire departments.

But in fact, hundreds of local governments across the state had already reduced funding for police departments in 2019, as a new report by the Wisconsin Policy Forum reveals. “The data show 253 municipalities decreased the dollar amount spent on all law enforcement activities,” the  report noted. “This includes large cities (Milwaukee, Green Bay), suburbs (Bayside, Grafton, Stoughton, Verona), and a number of very small communities, including 144 municipalities with fewer than 2,000 residents. In fact, all but 10 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties had at least one municipality that decreased its police budget in 2019. ”

Total spending on law enforcement for all municipalities actually increased by 1.3%, from $1.21 billion in 2018 to $1.23 billion in 2019, with 461 municipalities increasing their spending on police, the report found. But the 253 local governments that did cut funding in 2019 shows that this is commonly done by communities, not to reform police departments, but to balance their budgets.

“Wisconsin municipalities have been operating under strict property tax limits for more than a decade,” the report notes. Meanwhile, state-shared revenue has been declining for about 20 years. This has squeezed local budgets across the state and “likely [has] contributed to the difficulties faced by municipalities in maintaining police and fire department budgets and staffing,” the report finds.

That, in turn, impacted police staffing. “From 2018 to 2019, 79 Wisconsin police departments reported increasing their sworn officers, while 59 decreased them,” the report found.

Act 10, the controversial law decimating public employee unions championed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker, did provide some financial relief to local governments by reducing the cost of employee benefits. But the workers with the most generous benefits, police and fire fighters, were exempt from the law. This put the most strain on big cities with more poverty and higher crime, which have bigger police departments, “In 2019, police, fire, and emergency medical services together made up 39.3% of all municipal operating spending in Wisconsin,” the report found, but it was a far higher percentage for cities like Milwaukee (52.1%), Madison (44.2%), and Kenosha (56.7%)

That has left Milwaukee cutting its police force, by far the city’s biggest expense, in order to balance an ever more squeezed budget. In its 2021 budget brief for Milwaukee, the Wisconsin Policy Forum noted that “even though the city planned to cut 120 sworn officers (6.7%), the department budget would decline by just $434,000, as pension costs and salary increases for the remaining officers would offset almost all the savings from reducing the workforce.”

The situation is about to get much worse, as Jeramey Jannene recently reported for Urban Milwaukee: “The city must increase its annual pension contribution in 2023 to offset declining pension fund returns and increasing costs. The size of the increase, estimated at $76.6 million annually, is expected to affect every city department, potentially causing a cascading series of layoffs and service reductions or eliminations.”

The city could have more easily handled that cost if not for the decline in state shared revenue, which has cost it $100 million per year, as Urban Milwaukee has reported.

As a recent Op Ed for Urban Milwaukee by Jordan Morales charged, it is Republican legislators who have effectively defunded Milwaukee’s police, with successive budgets that have cut Milwaukee’s shared revenue in real dollars.

The Wisconsin Public Forum offers a more judicious, green eye-shaded conclusion, noting that municipal spending on police and other services will continue to be a challenge so long as as key structural items, “namely, levy limits and flat state aid – remain in place.”

7 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Police Were Defunded Before George Floyd”

  1. David Coles says:

    I wish more people would get upset by our defunding and de-fanging of the entities that police corporate crime (the EPA, SEC, OSHA, etc) or that police tax fraud and tax evasion (IRS – probably the only government agency that can turn each extra dollar budgeted toward its operations into multiple dollars available for public needs). To paraphrase Ralph Nader, it’s the crime in the suites, not the crime in the streets, that causes most of the troubles in our society.

  2. NieWiederKrieg says:

    Wall Street banker Steve Cohen steals $10 billion. pays a $2 billion fine, and keeps the other $8 billion.

    Inner city kid shoplifts a pack of cigarettes and ends up getting 6 bullets in the back from the police.

    God bless America?

  3. Jeffjay60 says:

    I never heard an answer to a question posed by Alderman Nic Kovac at a constituent’s meeting.
    How many police officers do we need, and what factors go into that decision?

  4. Ryan Cotic says:

    Considering that milwaukee set a record for homocides this past year it would seem we need to add more police and not less?

  5. NieWiederKrieg says:

    @ Ryan Coltic – 45% of the City of Milwaukee Police Department moved out of the city as of Aug. 15, 2019. It’s probably over 60% now.

    Why bother to hire more white, racist cops who don’t give a damn about the City of Milwaukee and the people who live here?

    Milwaukee city workers moved out in droves after the residency rule ended –

  6. Jeffjay60 says:

    Question for Ryan Cotic. How do the police prevent homicides? I understand they can pursue and prosecute perpetrators. But how do they prevent people from shooting each other? It appears to me that many of the shootings in this city are not planned or predictable.

  7. Dan Wilson says:

    Why do municipalities under 3,000 population justify a police department? When I covered local politics years ago I was always struck by the burden police budgets had on local taxes. Typically, police protection would eat up one third to one half of the levy. Unlike other budget items there are no offsets to police costs other than writing numerous traffic tickets. There are no state or federal aids for police protection. There is also not enough crime in small towns to justify a police presence when the duties could easily be handled by the county sheriff’s department. This invites abuse. My favorite example is the village of Lomira. A piece of U.S. 41 runs through the city limits so they run radar on the highway to write speeding tickets to bring in revenue, which is pretty impressive.

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