Increasing Police Funding is the Counterintuitive Solution to America's Policing Problem
Updated: Jul 7
Over the past month, there has been an increased call for police reform, mainly in the US, as a result of the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police. With people marching against racial inequality and police brutality, across the world, many have spoken negatively towards the militarization of law enforcement, which is a direct result of their staggering budget. Like in defence spending, the US has been very keen to pour a large amount of money in law enforcement, both on a regional and federal level. Now, many believe that a solution is a downsizing of police across the US and a reallocation of the budget to projects aimed at community growth. Although this is an excellent idea, at least at a surface level, and police militarization is neither a good nor a necessary thing, there are a set of complex normative parameters that point towards the opposite as the solution. An increase of the police budget, or at the very least, a more educated distribution of funds within local police forces is necessary for positive change.
To begin, we should first take a look across the Atlantic, and specifically Northern Europe. The Nordics are not only very safe but also showcase staggeringly low numbers of police brutality compared to the US. In 2019, the US reported 46 per 10 million killings attributed to the actions of law enforcement, in the same year, the Netherlands 2.3, Sweden 1, and Norway 1.9. In general, the US always ranks pretty high in this statistic, usually surrounded by countries with considerably higher crime rates than itself. Now, obviously, the clear factor here could be the difference in crime rate between the US and Western Europe, but the US and Sweden - which is Europe’s second-worst country in terms of crime - only feature a difference of 0.13%. So for the rest of this article, we will be making the assumption that US police brutality cases can be mainly attributed to the police, rather than an increased propensity for crime.
As such, the first consideration to be made is police training. It has slowly become apparent that US officer training standards are neither universal (federally mandated) nor exhaustive. According to Maria Haberfeld, a professor of police science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, police training academies in the US last between “10 weeks and up to 36 weeks”. Further, in a point made by former US Navy SEAL Jocko Willink, US Marines - who see combat significantly less than police officers - spend at least 20% of their time performing training exercises. We should now compare this with training procedures in Norway which are undertaken federally by the Norwegian Police University College. The NPUC runs a 3-year police officer qualification course which is considered a bachelor's degree. Further, officers that wish to continue their education in law enforcement can opt to get a Masters degree equivalent as well. The story is similar in Sweden whose academy is 2.5 years long - excluding the year-long placement training. The Swedish system is even more exhaustive requiring the candidate to be a ‘personality fit for the job’; in 2013, only 4% of applicants were accepted into the academy with just half of them making it into year-two. It is difficult to argue against increased police training, it is after all quite straightforward, but the cost to implement such programs is exorbitant. However, even if these programs were to be implemented correctly and with enough money, another issue arises, why would someone study 3 years to work as a US police officer? After all, it pays $54k while the average university graduate makes $72k. This brings us to the next point.
The US job market is highly competitive, with good pay to be found for those wishing to pursue demanding careers, especially with a degree. A US University degree takes 4 years to complete, so for an extra year of study, a graduate will be making $18k more per year, on average; without adjusting for university loan etc. But even with the loan, if required, the pay is justifiable, especially in future pay increases and promotions. So policing is losing candidates from the private job market. But it is also losing candidates from the Armed Forces. The US Military offers high pay and good benefits for those who enlist, often young men and women, with a connection to their communities and a need for financial stability before college. So the point of a funding increase stands heavy here. If we want the police to attract people who are bright and want to contribute, we must make it worth their time. This would require a pay increase across the police force for the jobs to be competitive and therefore thought of as possible alternatives to other university-level careers. Contrary to this point is the factual data on salaries for Norway. An average police officer salary is about 30% less than that of an average Norwegian; however, the benefits of the work both normative (see below) and financial, such as healthcare, pension etc. make the work attractive. Thus, it is clear that law enforcement needs to escape from being ‘just’ a public office position and become more attractive for those who we want to be part of the force. People that care for the community and want to create positive change.
The final point, which I deem the most important, is the idea of community and its value in the creation of a police force aimed to serve the people. Countries with ‘caring’ policing such as Norway have a concrete sense of identity and community on a national level, a similar thing must happen in the US. The idea is that as a member of law enforcement it is my duty to help people, including those down on their luck who might be committing petty crimes or doing drugs. This point also extends to the fact that the Nordics have the concept of rehabilitation down to a tee, something that the US is millennia away from achieving (see Prison Industry). Therefore, it is important for law enforcement to operate on a more communal basis, they are not the ‘king of the hill’ but rather another ‘average joe’ down the street, with the explicit aim of helping the community. This attitude of ‘othering’ between police and communities has been a long-standing issue, heavily embedded in America’s racial divide, however, other factors come into play. A key factor is the glorification of the armed forces, something that pushes the police force to militarize and attempt to distinguish itself as better and honourable from the rest of society. That being said, the largest issue remains that of the exclusion of certain classes from the force, mainly due to normative reasons. Thus, we need to stress the need for the creation of community police, where you watch over your neighbourhood, the people you know or have heard of and care about. Discourse in modern America often shies away from motives that include identity, especially the American one, however, law enforcement requires an understanding of prospects and progress. We want to respect and follow the (just) laws because that will create a better nation for our children to live in. This is not a call to embrace nationalism, but a call to understand the necessities of a communal identity, especially in matters about the community as a whole.
All in all, defunding the police is not exactly the right call. Restructuring of law enforcement is necessary of course, and to achieve the level of high-quality law enforcement enjoyed across most of Europe, money is required. Indeed, police funding is already quite high, but the call is to, first, restructure law enforcement budgeting priorities and, an increase of funding to accommodate for the creation of a more appealing police force. We should not let rage cloud our judgement, the US is already spending a lot in many sectors, and there are better things to defund to increase living standards and opportunities rather than police (see US Military). The policing question in the US is overly complex and while defunding (and later on disbanding) the police is a utopian idea, few countries – if any – are ready for that yet.