We’ve heard the calls from many to “defund the police” or to reduce law enforcement budgets as positive steps toward better policing. As a former elected sheriff, not only do I disagree that these types of “reforms” would do anything but harm public safety, but I also believe that they miss a key point on how police departments are currently funded and what needs to change about the budgetary process to see positive steps in policing across the country.
Public safety should be funded primarily through general appropriations. Yet hundreds of law enforcement agencies and local governments across the United States rely significantly on fines, fees and property forfeitures to fund their budgets, which has been and will continue to be a recipe for disaster. For many communities, this results in substantial fines, heavy parking citations, multiplying speed enforcement zones and over-investment in technology such as traffic cameras and license plate readers to collect even more revenue. In too many cases, citizens are incarcerated unnecessarily due to unpaid financial obligations and not because of criminal acts impacting public safety.
In a 2019 study, Governing conducted the largest analysis of fine revenues to date and found that fines and fees are a critical source of funding, accounting in some communities for more than half of all general revenues. This is especially true in lower-income communities with fewer resources and fewer tax dollars to pull traditional revenues from.
A concerning example of the pressure police face to collect their own revenue came from a Department of Justice investigation into the Ferguson, Mo., Police Department in the wake of the unrest that followed the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in 2014. The report concluded: “The city budgets for sizeable increases in municipal fines and fees each year, exhorts police and court staff to deliver those revenue increases and closely monitors whether those increases are achieved.” As the city’s finance director put it in a message to the police chief in 2010, “Unless ticket writing ramps up significantly before the end of the year, it will be hard to significantly raise collections next year. … Given that we are looking at a substantial sales tax shortfall, it’s not an insignificant issue.”
This reliance also warps incentives and forces law enforcement to unnecessarily focus on these nonpublic safety endeavors. Research suggests that police departments that collect higher shares of their revenue from fines and fees solve both violent and property crime at significantly lower rates.
Using fines and fees collection to supplant police budgets also has a detrimental effect on the profession of law enforcement and can drive a wedge between police and their communities. A recent Institute for Justice survey found that individuals hit with citations have significantly lower levels of trust in government, including police. And a 2017 report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights shows that the doling out of fines and fees and their enforcement by police fall significantly upon low-income communities and those with higher percentages of African American and Latino populations.
Issuing citations and traffic enforcement serve as important functions of law enforcement. But we should not force interactions between police and their communities when revenue collection, and not public safety, is the primary focus. This leads to distrust of police and less cooperation from the community to solve crime, and it increases the tension of interactions between community members and law enforcement when someone owes money to the government and is fearful they could find themselves behind bars for their inability to pay. Police officers should be on the street enforcing the law, solving crime and helping their communities, not finding avenues to generate revenue from those they are sworn to protect.
State and local governments have a responsibility to back their police agencies so the relationships between their police and their communities are respected and transparent. Not funding them adequately and relying instead on other special revenue categories counters the hard work law enforcement does every day to gain citizens’ trust and respect. Elected officials should eliminate the supplanting of police budgets through fines, fees and forfeitures and instead fund essential public safety functions through general appropriations.
Currie Myers is the retired sheriff of Johnson County, Kan., and a member of the faculty in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at Benedictine College.
Governing: The Future of States and Localities takes on the question of what state and local government looks like in a world of rapidly advancing technology. Governing is a resource for elected and appointed officials and other public leaders who are looking for smart insights and a forum to better understand and manage through this era of change.