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By Agustin Leon-Moreta
March 24, 2017
Inequality in policing is a defining public policy challenge. This article explores the role of funding for policing in American cities. Inequality in policing has a direct relationship with the availability of funding sources. After the Great Recession, many cities had to downsize the level of their policing programs as a consequence of diminished fiscal capacity. While the gradual economy recovery of recent years has allowed cities to redeploy resources toward policing, wide fiscal disparities still affect cities’ ability to support policing. This article focuses on two elements:
Own-source revenue is the first and most basic source of resources for policing. Traditionally, municipalities have funded police services via direct taxes, such as property taxes. In many municipalities, police services are also funded by sales taxes, income taxes and other tax sources. In some cases, nontax sources of revenues may also be utilized to support police services. For example, some municipalities make net revenue from various user fees and charges to support general services, including policing. User fees and charges, however, are less common, while tax sources of revenue remain the core source of revenue for policing. Municipalities increasingly seek alternative sources of revenue to fund police services.
Fiscal capacity so affects the ability of cities to provide policing services. By affecting their ability to collect resources, fiscal capacity differentially affects cities’ policing programs. Whereas high income municipalities have a strong fiscal base, low income municipalities have a limited fiscal base to support services. These fiscal disparities directly affect municipalities, particularly in metropolitan areas where mobile residents and firms can easily relocate into low-tax municipalities. As a consequence, municipalities have limited flexibility in terms of revenue capacity as a result of that mobility. In extreme cases, fiscally distressed municipalities have to dramatically cut back policing due to diminished ability to collect revenue for services. Building fiscal capacity in municipalities is a fundamental goal for achieving greater equality of police services in America.
A variety of social and institutional factors affect the fiscal capacity of municipalities. Those various factors, as noted earlier, result in fiscal disparities. Intergovernmental aid is one of the most important institutional approaches to bolster fiscal capacity and mitigate fiscal disparities among municipalities. Federal and state grants both support policing services. Well known federal programs include the COPS grants, for example, that provide assistance for community policing. State funding can play an influential role in resolving disparities in municipal policing. Some states provide grants specific for municipal policing; other states provide general support for municipal services that can be allocate to policing.
While municipalities are primarily responsible for policing in their communities, the state governments are particularly well positioned to support policing services. As noted earlier, state governments can employ both restricted funds and general support funding models. General support is funding municipalities can use for any program or service. Restricted grants are funding sources that can be used only for a specific purpose, in this case policing. While municipalities would generally prefer general support, the state government may want to rely more on restricted grants to ensure that funding is specifically employed for public safety rather than for other programs.
Alternative funding includes fiscal inter-local cooperation. This includes several models. A basic model is inter-local reimbursements. Through these reimbursements, some municipalities reimburse county governments for policing provision. In these cases, county governments provide policing services on behalf of municipalities, and then the municipal governments reimburse the county governments. This is an important model for municipalities that have limited institutional capacity to provide policing services by themselves. In some cases, these inter-local transfers may also occur between municipalities. That is, a municipality can reimburse another municipality for the provision of policing.
Voter initiatives are an alternative approach to generate revenue for policing services. In states and municipalities where the voter initiative is available, residents sometimes have utilized the initiative process to approve tax increases to support services. This approach may be of importance for municipalities constrained by tax and expenditure limitations. In some cases, municipalities may override those limitations by voter initiative. Although this approach depends on political feasibility, it is nonetheless an important approach that municipalities can explore. The general lesson is that municipalities can rely on a variety of funding models to support policing. Typically, municipalities are limited by their own ability to collect revenue for policing services. The above discussion suggests that municipalities can seek and rely on alternative funding strategies. In America’s federal system, various funding mechanisms are available to support fiscally distressed municipalities. The use of those alternative funding models is of relevance to distressed municipalities, which often have fewer revenue options available to support services. Those municipalities can take advantage, in particular, of interlocal cooperative models and intergovernmental aid. Through the utilization of alternative funding models, municipalities can both support adequate policing services and relieve the fiscal burden of service provision.
Author: Agustin Leon-Moreta, PhD, Assistant Professor, School of Public Administration, University of New Mexico https://spa.unm.edu