After George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officers on May 25, protests across the country sparked renewed cries to defund police departments. While the term “defund” can be understood differently in different areas, its supporters generally share a goal of disbanding police departments in their current forms and re-investing public funds in social services and community-based programs.
The hashtag “#defundthepolice” might have seemed novel to some people over the eventful past month of street protests, but criminal justice reform organizations have been tracking the continual rise in law enforcement budgets for years, even as FBI data shows violent crime has trended downwards since the early 1990’s.
The nonprofit Justice Policy Institute, working in Washington D.C. for over 20 years, put out its “Rethinking The Blues” report in May 2012, studying how spending on police had increased 445 percent since 1982, to over $100 billion every year, with increases at the federal, state, and local levels. In 2017 alone, state and local governments spent a total of $115 billion on police departments and $79 billion on corrections, think tank The Urban Institute found.
Similarly, in 2017, the Brooklyn-based progressive advocacy group Center for Popular Democracy put out its “Freedom To Thrive” report, with updated data in 2020, finding that across diverse geographies and cities 20 to 45% of discretionary funds are allocated to policing. “Police spending vastly outpaces expenditures in vital community resources and services,” the report states.
In the years after the August 2014 uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, federal funding in the billions continued to pour into militarizing local police.
One reason police budgets have steadily increased as crime rates have fallen may be the massive amount of campaign funding that law enforcement PACs give to lawmakers at the state and local level, giving them influence over the people who approve state and municipal budgets.
In New York, the largest police union, the Police Benevolent Association of New York City, has spent more than $1.4 million on campaign contributions and lobbying fees since 2015—and there are at least 31 more law enforcement PACs in New York. The Los Angeles Police Protective League has been a local force in elections over the past decade beyond the $100,000 it’s donated to city candidates, largely through millions of dollars in independent expenditures
A new research and public accountability project, NoMoreCopMoney, has assembled key campaign finance data that illuminates how law enforcement budgets were driven upwards, even as criminal justice reform organizations documented the benefits of alternatives to current policing practices.
Nationwide, at least 2,357 current state and local elected officials have received over $14,898,720 in campaign contributions from law enforcement PACs since 2015, NoMoreCopMoney found. The group points out that this amount is just a portion of law enforcement spending in politics, as it does not capture donations from individual law enforcement officers, money donated by third party organizations not categorized as law enforcement, or all lobbying and independent expenditures.
NoMoreCopMoney, inspired by the grassroots police protest movement and founded on June 2, describes itself as a group of data scientists, political scientists, designers, allies and activists highlighting the influence of law enforcement in politics. Its volunteers assembled campaign finance data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics (NIMSP) to identify donations from law enforcement PACs, specifically those representing police and corrections officers, to all state and local lawmakers available in NIMSP’s data.
The total contributions from law enforcement PAC to campaigns during this time period was even higher. Counting former officials and candidates who were not elected, NoMoreCopMoney found, 3,530 state and local politicians have taken over $19.6 million from law enforcement PACs since 2015. These figures do not cover all county-, city-, and local-level elected officials for which campaign contribution data is not available.
The group is calling on politicians at all levels to sign a pledge to reject donations from law enforcement organizations, even if they haven’t traditionally or recently received such contributions, and asks signers who have received law enforcement contributions to show proof of donating those funds to an organization that serves Black communities.
Among currently-serving state and local elected officials, 67.7 percent of law enforcement PAC campaign contributions have gone to Democrats, totalling over $10 million. That amount is more than twice the over $4.5 million accepted by Republicans currently serving, the group’s 50-state review found.
“Some of the most liberal states are home to the highest level of law enforcement PAC spending,” said Sasha de Vogel, a Political Science PhD candidate at the University of Michigan and co-founder of NoMoreCopMoney. “Nineteen of the 20 top recipients of cop money serve in New York or California.
“Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, is the largest single recipient, with $288,250 over his last two elections, and California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, ranks at number three, having accepted $258,800,” de Vogel said. “It is worth noting that New York City and Los Angeles are home to major cities that are home to some of the most militarized, well-funded and historically abusive police departments in the country.”
In New York, NoMoreCopMoney found that 191 current elected officials have received almost $2.8 million in donations since 2015. In California, the total is over $6.3 million received by 123 state and local elected officials. Not just governors and state legislators, campaign cash from police organizations goes to judges, attorneys general and other elected officials like California’s secretary of state, Democrat Alex Padilla ($73,000). Even members of California’s tax administration public agency, the Equalization Board, have received money from law enforcement PACs.
The project’s de Vogel highlighted several other elected officials who have received substantial police funding. “New York Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, whose office monitors the efficient use of taxpayer dollars, is the second highest overall recipient,” she said. “In a clear testament of the school to prison pipeline, California’s Schools Superintendent Tony K. Thurmond has accepted so much cop money that he ranks in the national top 20, with $117,500.”
In addition to finding state summaries and individual elected official totals using the drop-down on the NoMoreCopMoney website, the data is available as a bulk download from the site, with all states combined or with individual .csv files by state.
In early June, at least seven Democratic New York elected officials pledged to reject law enforcement PAC donations, prompted by a public spreadsheet created by student activist Aaron Fernando.
“You have to ask yourself, is it possible that you’re not fighting as hard as you are for this policy because of who’s giving you money?” Fernando told WNYC in an interview after his spreadsheet was widely shared on Twitter.