It’s Time to Reimagine Safety and Security in Our Communities

07/14/2017 06:05 pm ET Updated Jul 17, 2017

The over-policing and mass criminalization of Black and brown people is the moral crisis of our time.

The United States has the world's largest incarcerated population with approximately 2.2 million people currently behind prisons and jails (21 percent of the world’s prisoners) while several police departments across the country are under investigation for charges of police brutality, gross misconduct and civil rights violations.

If the goal of mass incarceration is to make communities safer, then by all objective standards this strategy has failed. The combined prioritization of punitive legislation, aggressive policing, prosecutorial policies, and spending decisions at the state and federal levels have led to the mass caging and exploitation of black and brown people, but not to safer communities. Cities and counties help fuel this crisis with every budget they pass.

The Center for Popular Democracy, Black Youth Project 100, and Law for Black Lives just released a groundbreaking report, “Freedom to Thrive: Reimagining Safety & Security in Our Communities,” which reveals how cities and counties continue to spend overwhelmingly on punitive policing and incarceration, while blatantly neglecting infrastructure and social programs.

This report is the result of months of research in which we analyzed the budgets of 12 cities and counties and interviewed dozens of community organizations.

These are just a few of the alarming findings (based on fiscal year 2017 budgets):

  • Minneapolis, the city where Philando Castile was killed by a police officer during a traffic stop, spends 36 percent of its general fund budget on policing. For each dollar spent on police, less than one cent goes to transportation and youth violence prevention.
  • New York City, where Eric Garner was killed after an officer put him in an illegal chokehold, spends nearly $5 billion on its police force even as it faces a homelessness and affordable housing crisis and a decaying public transit system.
  • Baltimore, where 28 percent of the Black population lives below the poverty line, spends $772 per person on policing. For every dollar the city spends on the police, it contributes 55 cents to Baltimore public schools.
  • St. Louis County, where Michael Brown was fatally shot by police in Ferguson in 2014, spends nearly 26 percent of its general fund budget on policing versus 0.5 percent on its Department of Planning, which includes funding for mental health, youth job programs, and housing development.
  • Oakland spends the highest percentage of its general fund expenditures on policing of the jurisdictions we looked at -- 41 percent overall. For every dollar it spends on policing from its total budget, the city spends just eight cents on its Housing and Community Development department, despite an affordable housing crisis that has displaced around 30 percent of its Black population.

Most of the cities analyzed allocate 25 percent to 40 percent of their general fund expenditures—the most flexible, discretionary fund—towards policing and criminalization. However, when it comes to their total operating budgets, some cities spend only an indecently low amount of one percent on affordable housing, education or transportation.

These budgets tell a story of where government priorities lie. Spoiler alert: it’s not in developing our communities that are in desperate need of essential, life-saving services, resources, and justice.

This is a trend that has accelerated over the last 30 years. At both the national and local levels, governments have dramatically increased their spending on policing and mass incarceration and criminalization while drastically cutting investments in basic infrastructure and slowing investment in social safety net programs —the type of critical resources that truly make communities safe: healthcare, mental health, education, affordable housing, transit access, jobs and youth development.

We often say Black and Brown communities are starved of resources and investments, and particularly low-income communities as having no investments, no resources, and being starved. In fact, there is an incredible amount of investment going into Black and Brown communities, but it’s going into criminalizing them.

As a result, communities and organizations across the country have been advocating and proposing concrete budget adjustments and investments that can be implemented if lawmakers care about their constituents’ concerns. For each city, the report includes the voices of communities working to shift resources from over-policing and incarceration towards community priorities and rising up courageously to fight for ownership of their own people's safety and security.

That’s why we are are calling on local governments to divest resources away from police and invest in developing, healing, and restoring our communities. Instead of expanding punitive systems, these community members and organizers around the country are fighting for investments they know generate jobs, help close the wealth gap, reduce crime and violence, and keep our communities safe and healthy.

We don’t need more guns, we need more youth programs. We don’t need more patrols, we need more public transportation. We don’t need more officers, we need more teachers and health professionals. We don’t need more jails and incarceration, we need more mental health resources. We don’t need more police departments, we need more affordable housing.

In the wake of constant stories of police brutality, state violence and the murder of our brothers and sisters, it is past time for us to start reimagining what safety means, how it is being resourced, and who is defining it. Those most impacted by crime are calling for community-owned public safety. It's time lawmakers listen to them —and take action.

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