This post is co-authored by Bryan Phillips, Summer Research Associate
The slogan “defund the police,” acknowledges an emerging sentiment that state and local governments have spent and are currently spending too much on law enforcement and not enough on social services, mental health, housing, and education. Research suggests that spending on these and other upstream factors can lessen inequality within communities and reduce crime. To enhance this conversation, we reviewed some of the data on public safety spending in West Virginia.
According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau (compiled by Urban Institute), West Virginia’s state and local governments spent about $395 million on policing in 2017, more than double police expenditures in 1977 (adjusted for inflation).
Counties and municipalities each make up around 40 percent of police spending in West Virginia, while state spending accounts for a little over 20 percent. This differs from most states, where, on average, a majority of police spending occurs at the municipal or county level. This is partly because West Virginia is a rural state, with no large urban cities, so it relies more heavily on county sheriffs and state police (troopers). In fact, West Virginia has more state troopers per capita than all but five states. Factors that can influence police spending include labor costs (compensation), policy decisions, and administrative procedures. In 2019, West Virginia had the fourth lowest annual wages for police in the nation, partly reflective of the low cost of living in the state.
Altogether, West Virginia spent less per capita on police than every state but Kentucky in 2017. Although West Virginia ranks low in per-capita police spending, the state has experienced substantial growth in police spending over the last four decades. Police spending by counties and municipalities in West Virginia has grown from $60 per capita in 1977 to $173 in 2017, after adjusting for inflation (2017 dollars). Local police spending was relatively flat from the late 1970s through the 1980s, but then began to rise sharply in the mid-1990s as policymakers enacted “tough on crime” laws and cities and towns put more cops on the street. This occurred in West Virginia, which has seen an increase in police officers despite a declining population. Statewide, the ratio of police officers to 1,000 citizens has nearly doubled from 1.4 to 2.6 since 1985, when the FBI began collecting data.
Local police spending as a share of the state’s personal income has grown in a similar fashion, remaining relatively flat (0.25 percent) from the late 1970s until the mid-1990s, before growing to 0.30 percent by the late 1990s to about 0.45 percent by 2017. As a share of total local expenditures, local police spending grew from about 3.2 percent in 1977 to 5.3 percent by 2017.
In West Virginia and across the country, per capita spending on policing expenditures, state and local combined, is on the rise. West Virginia experienced an increase in expenditures from just below $100 per capita in 1977 to just above $200 in 2017. During the same time, all state and local governments cumulatively have increased expenditures from roughly $200 to just above $350 per person. While cumulative state and local government expenditures increased at a slightly higher rate than West Virginia’s, they both follow the same trend, peaking in the late 2000s, a slight decline immediately following, and a slow uptick in the early 2010s.
As the populations of West Virginia’s cities and towns have decreased, so has the share of police spending from municipalities. In 1977 municipalities comprised almost half of police spending in the state compared to 39 percent in 2017. Meanwhile, county spending shifted from about 22 percent of police spending in 1977 to 40 percent in 2017.
The majority of government spending on police protection and public safety in the United States is at the local level, thus, including total state expenditures can obscure how much our cities and counties are devoting to law enforcement.
To get a more accurate picture, let’s look at municipal data in West Virginia. Proposed budget data, while not perfect, is provided by the WV Auditors Local Government Services Division and represents revised estimates for current fiscal year revenues and expenditures, as well as for previous years. These numbers may not reflect end-of-year expenditures or revenues.
Among the state’s ten largest cities, police department expenditures as a percentage of the total budget ranges between 20 and 30 percent. For some cities, such as Huntington and Morgantown, police department spending is the single largest line item in the budget.
Police officers are asked to respond to a wide range of calls, many of which are non-emergency, from issues with people experiencing homelessness to conflicts in schools. Cities are asking more of law enforcement and are paying for that by in turn asking more of residents and people who work within their boundaries.
One such mechanism to do that is through user fees. While these fees are usually statutorily earmarked for public safety, roads, and public works, most of the cities analyzed exhibited a decrease in other discretionary spending in other line items not directly tied to the additional revenue. Some of the cities, from the time period of 2013-2020 (proposed budget for current year), showed a decrease or elimination of funding for flood control and soil conservation, dog wardens and humane societies, community development and housing, recycling services, economic development, parks and recreation, public transportation, and community fairs and events.
In recent years, several municipalities in West Virginia have imposed or increased user fees for people who work within city limits. User fees, which are typically deducted from workers’ paychecks automatically, are considered regressive because everyone pays the same rate, regardless of income. Wheeling’s user fee of $2 per week went into effect at the beginning of 2020. Huntington has the largest user fee at $5 per week. Like other municipalities, Charleston and Morgantown dedicate a portion of their user fees toward hiring more police personnel and financing departmental expenses, such as more patrol officers and new vehicles. Morgantown, for example, dedicates $1.23 of its $3 weekly fee to these expenses, while $1.20 goes toward improving city streets and $0.75 goes toward public works projects. Cities have the power to raise such significant amounts of revenue for discretionary spending, so it’s crucial for taxpayers and policy makers to understand the implications of their budgeting decisions.
Protesters calling for police reform are also calling attention to the racial disparities that exist within the criminal justice system. Communities of color, specifically Black communities, are more likely to have interactions with police, face stiffer penalties for the same crimes, and are incarcerated at higher rates. In West Virginia, Blacks make up less than 4 percent of the population, but account for 12 percent of the prison population and 17 percent of the jail population. According to the Vera Institute, the Black incarceration rate in West Virginia prisons has increased 266 percent since 1978 and Black people are incarcerated at a rate 3.2 times higher than White people.
These disparities reflect a legacy of inequality and structural racism. From barriers to home ownership to educational attainment, Blacks in the United States do not have the same economic opportunities afforded to Whites. In West Virginia, the Black poverty rate is 28.6 percent, higher than the state’s overall poverty rate of 17.6 percent. Blacks are also less likely to have bachelor’s degrees compared to Whites in West Virginia. Decades of disinvestment in social services and support for marginalized populations, with an increase in law enforcement spending, has led to the “criminalization of poverty.”
While police spending has remained relatively constant over the last 40 years, crime rates have plummeted across the country. A central tenet of the defund the police movement is that some of the funding devoted to police budgets could be used for upstream social services, such as mental health, substance abuse counseling, housing, or education. West Virginia has one of the highest rates of severe mental illness in the country, and studies show that 10 percent of police contacts nationwide involve a person suffering from mental illness. While police trainings for substance abuse and mental health services help introduce officers to education on mental illness, de-escalation techniques, and community resources, it is unclear whether any police agencies in West Virginia undergo such trainings. Regardless, the ultimate responsibility should lay with the mental health system, not the police. While police have a responsibility to respond safely and humanely, they may not be the best prepared to deal with these interactions compared to trained social service responders.
In addition to situations involving mental health crises, policymakers and elected officials have increasingly relied on law enforcement to combat the opioid epidemic. However, a more moral—and cost-efficient—response may be one that prioritizes drug treatment and counseling. According to some estimates, every dollar put toward addiction treatment programs saves between $4 and $7 in criminal justice costs. Congress recently proposed a substantial police reform bill – the “Justice in Policing Act of 2020”. This bill proposes significant reforms that would seek to alter the way in which citizens interact with the police by suggesting ways to end racial and religious profiling, banning chokeholds and no-knock warrants, limiting the use of military equipment on US soil, requiring body cameras nationally, making it easier to hold police accountable in court, and other accountability and transparency reforms that would make policing less adversarial to the public and enhance oversight.
While this is a significant and meaningful step toward much needed reform in some respects, advocates don’t expect this to be a panacea for the criminal justice system. Evidence suggests that recent police reforms such as body cameras and implicit bias training, do not have the mitigating impact that they were intended to.
Ultimately, policymakers and their constituents must also elevate and explore policy alternatives that focus on improving the socioeconomic conditions in neighborhoods. That will require local governments to lead the way by redirecting funding currently dedicated to police departments to areas such as mental health services, social workers, substance use disorder education and prevention, job training, and education.
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