(LOS ANGELES) — In Los Angeles, the county sheriff says local residents are in danger because “defunding has consequences” — even though his agency’s budget is up more than $250 million since 2019.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva is not alone in suggesting to voters that crime is up because Democrats defunded police agencies after nationwide protests following the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
Politicians, pundits and police leaders across the country are repeating the accusation as they address concerns about crime heading toward Election Day.
Yet in many communities, defunding never happened.
ABC Owned Television Stations examined the budgets of more than 100 cities and counties and found that 83% are spending at least 2% more on police in 2022 than in 2019.
Of the 109 budgets analyzed, only eight agencies cut police funds by more than 2%, while 91 agencies increased law enforcement funding by at least 2%.
In 49 cities or counties, police funding has increased by more than 10%.
An ‘outbreak of crime’
Despite what the public record shows, an analysis of broadcast transcripts shows that candidates, law enforcement leaders and television hosts discussed the impact of “defunding the police” more than 10,000 times over the last two years, according to the Internet Archive’s TV news transcripts dating back to June 2020 — and the mentions aren’t subsiding during this campaign season.
“In communities across the country, like in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, so many other places, it is this remarkable, incredible, outbreak of crime,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said in a video posted on Twitter in August by the Republican Governors Association.
“You typically see where these crimes are taking place, there has been a de-emphasis of the role that law enforcement plays. It could be defunding law enforcement. It could be a reduction in law enforcement,” Abbott said.
Dr. Rashawn Ray, a sociologist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told KABC in Los Angeles that this false narrative has persisted due to repetition by public officials.
“Overwhelmingly, cities, counties, police departments across the country are not being defunded in any way,” Ray said. “In fact, many of them have increased their budgets. Part of the reason why the ‘defund the police’ narrative has stayed around is because police officers say it and elected officials say it.”
ABC’s analysis of police budget data shows police spending has increased in some of the very cities frequently cited by conservative politicians and pundits as places where Democrats’ defunding has fueled violent crime waves.
The Los Angeles Police Department’s budget is up by 9.4% since 2019. San Francisco’s police budget is up by 4% and Philadelphia’s is up by 3%.
In Chicago, police spending is up 15%, representing almost a quarter billion dollars in new police spending since 2019.
In Houston, where the homicide rate nearly doubled in both 2020 and 2021 before starting to subside this year, local government officials have increased police spending by nearly 9% — almost $80 million — from 2019 to 2022.
President Joe Biden heralded this movement in his 2022 State of the Union address, saying, “The answer is not to defund the police. It’s to fund the police. Fund them!” — a line that drew bipartisan applause.
Perception versus reality
A few cities did try to reallocate police spending following concerns from advocacy groups in the wake of the George Floyd protests.
In Austin, Texas, leaders cut the police budget by about 30% in 2021, proposing to instead spend that money on programs like family violence prevention, mental health responders, and police oversight.
But that lasted only one year. The Texas legislature voted to bar cities in the state from decreasing police budgets, so Austin boosted police spending by 50% in 2022.
In Los Angeles County, where Sheriff Villanueva is engaged in a tight re-election battle, he’s been outspoken for months about the impacts of what he describes as the defunding of his agency, claiming that his budget is being “cannibalized.”
Yet records show his agency’s budget is up about 8% percent — more than $259 million — from 2019 to 2022.
“While the perception may be that defunding is taking place, in fact, the sheriff’s budget has increased,” County Supervisor Kathryn Barger said.
When asked by KABC about his defunding claims, Villanueva acknowledged that his budget is higher — but not enough to cover rising costs. He said that if day-to-day costs grow faster than his budget, that is “direct defunding, of course.”
Barger, in response, said that cost increases impact many county departments and are not unique to the sheriff’s department.
“He plays as though he’s being targeted,” Barger said of Villanueva. “And he’s not.”
In fact, Los Angeles County’s 2023 budget will increase the sheriff’s department budget by another quarter of a billion dollars.
An ‘impossible environment’
Some in law enforcement say that even more than budget cuts, what’s really hurt police departments is anti-police rhetoric.
Following Floyd’s murder in 2020, protesters in New York clashed with NYPD officers for days on end. Officers arrested hundreds of protesters each night, and the department says more than 300 officers were among those hurt.
Seeking accountability, some politicians called for $1 billion to be cut from the NYPD’s budget.
But the billion-dollar cut never happened. The NYPD’s budget fell by just 2.8%, dropping from $5.6 billion in 2019 to $5.4 billion in 2022.
Nevertheless, Police Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch said the defund movement hurt officer morale.
“More than any budget cut, the greatest damage from the ‘Defund the Police’ movement was done by its anti-police, anti-public safety message,” Lynch told WABC in New York. “It has created an impossible environment on the streets, one where even the simplest interactions turn into a confrontation.”
The result was a massive NYPD exodus. Retirements in 2020 skyrocketed 72% from the previous year, and this year the NYPD lost more employees through the month of August than it had during that same time period in any previous year.
“As more cops quit, the workload becomes more crushing for those who remain,” Lynch said. “Public safety ultimately suffers.”
Being ‘all things to everybody’
Criminal justice experts say that even if the cuts were real, the premise that lower police spending leads to increased crime — or vice versa — is counter to decades of evidence, according to public data.
An ABC analysis of state and local police funding and overall violent crime data in the U.S. between 1985 and 2020 found no relationship between year-to-year police spending and crime rates. An analysis by the Washington Post found similar results from 1960 to 2018.
Further ABC analysis of Los Angeles County’s own crime data shows that, over the last decade, violent crime numbers haven’t moved up or down in relation to the amount of money spent on law enforcement or the number of officers on patrol.
Kimberly Dodson, a retired law enforcement officer who is now a criminologist at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, said that’s because police largely respond to crime instead of deter it.
“Crime happens. Somebody calls the police, and they come and take a report. Then they try to solve the crime after the fact,” Dodson told KTRK in Houston. “So saying that the police deter crime is not actually accurate, because they’re more of a reactive agency.”
Dodson said one reason police agencies feel stretched is because communities have been asking them to “be all things to everybody — and that doesn’t seem fair.”
For example, said Dodson, police these days are asked to respond to problems caused by longstanding mental health issues, family conflicts, or issues related to entrenched poverty that’s taken hold over decades.
“We always talked about, as police officers, we go out for 10 minutes and we fix something that’s been wrong and put a Band-Aid on it, something that’s been wrong for 10 years — and it’s just an impossible task,” said the former officer.
Changing that would mean changing the way emergency calls get handled, says Ray.
The Brookings Institution senior fellow is researching ways to narrow the mission of police so they only handle crime and safety, allowing government resources to be reallocated so problems not requiring police intervention could be handled by others.
“Are there better ways by which to think about calls for service, whether that be with mental health responses, whether that be with different sort of traffic officers handling those particular issues?” he said.
Such an arrangement could provide police even more time to focus on solving crimes and protecting people.
“It could actually free them up,” said Ray.
ABC’s John Kelly, Mark Nichols, Maia Rosenfeld, Lindsey Feingold, Nick Natario, Maggie Green, Lisa Bartley, Carlos Granda, Jared Kofsky and Tonya Simpson contributed to this report.
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