Volume 110

Federal (De)Funding of Local Police

by Roger Michalski & Stephen Rushin

This Essay presents an empirical analysis of federal funding for local and state police agencies in the United States. It finds that the federal government remains a relatively minor contributor to local police budgets. Federal funding only reaches a minority of local police agencies—around ten percent of all agencies in any given year. In total, only around twenty percent of all nonfederal law enforcement agencies during the past eight years have received federal funds. The federal government only spends $10-30 per capita on local policing, a relatively small percentage of the roughly $350 per capita that the typical U.S. municipality spends on policing each year.

Our findings indicate that most U.S. law enforcement agencies are not acutely reliant on federal funding. These findings have several important implications for the literature on police reform and accountability.The first finding is that the federal government is a relatively minor contributor to local police operations. From this observation, we conclude that efforts to use the lever of federal funding to alter the behavior of local police departments will at most have a limited effect, particularly if the reforms that federal lawmakers demand are expensive or unpopular locally. In such cases, local leaders may believe that the risk of losing federal funding is preferable to the change federal lawmakers demand. Second, we conclude from our findings that federal lawmakers will be better able to effectuate constitutional policing through means other than withholding federal funds. We therefore propose alternative means by which federal lawmakers can effectuate police reform that do not rely on leveraging (limited) federal funds. Finally, our findings reinforce the view that the ongoing debate about defunding police departments and reimagining public safety should occur primarily at the local level.

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