This Independence Day, Americans – Black, brown & white – are likely reflecting on just how divided and unequal our country remains, 245 years since its founding. Today it will be impossible to ignore who is celebrating and who is not. Who is wearing a mask and who is not? Who has joined the chorus, “Black Lives Matter,” and who has not? After centuries of Black people insisting that police are a threat to their well-being, who is ready to “Defund the Police” and who is not?
As local governments raced to meet their July 1st deadline to pass a final budget, lawmakers struggled to make funding decisions that adequately respond to the pandemic and heed calls to defund the police. Increased scrutiny of police practices in reaction to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others, have renewed calls to shift public resources away from policing and toward social services, community economic development and worker protections.
Protestors have justified the movement to defund the police by stating that taxpayer dollars should be invested in strengthening communities rather than the police, which have not kept communities safe.
At the same time the public health emergency has increased the need and demand for more housing, health care, and educational supports. A recent blog by Durham Beyond Policing put it this way:
“Systems of care will not end anti-Blackness by themselves. But ending anti-Blackness has no hope under punitive systems rooted in fear, brutality, and isolation. What will keep us safer is transforming our budget so city residents have healthy housing, nourishing food, free recreation, accessible healthcare and wellness services, and first responders —medics, counselors, mediators—intervening to reduce harm, not to escalate and isolate. “Public safety” means systems of care on the front end and accountability through transformative and restorative justice practices at the back end.”
However, many city councils across North Carolina continue to spend large portions of their General Funds on police. On average, the 5 largest cities in North Carolina – Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and Durham – plan to spend about 27 percent of their General Funds on police in Fiscal Year 2021. That number is up nearly 1 percent since last year. Variation across these cities ranges from about 41 percent of General Fund spending going to police in Charlotte to about 16 percent in Winston-Salem.
In Durham, the adopted budget for Fiscal Year 2021 includes a 4.3 percent increase in funding for the police compared to last year’s adopted budget. In Charlotte, where the General Fund for Fiscal Year 21 shrank by 1.2 percent since last year, the city council voted to increase police funding by 3.6 percent. By comparison, funding for housing and neighborhood services increased by only 1.8 percent. The story is similar in Raleigh, where funding for the police grew but funding for housing and neighborhood services fell by more than 15 percent.
Failing to reallocate dollars away from police budgets and toward community needs will slow the recovery and make our communities less safe and less resilient. These topline numbers may mask some of the detailed allocations within and across departments, but they clearly show the disconnect between community demands and local budget decisions.
Leila Pedersen is a policy analyst at the N.C. Budget & Tax Center.