How police funding decisions exacerbate social injustice

Municipalities in New Jersey are spending far more on police services than on social and human services to the detriment of its communities, according to a new report from New Jersey Policy Perspective.

The funding disparity was tracked using local, state and federal data, and highlights how it leads to disproportionately poorer outcomes for communities of color, while also forgoing opportunities to improve the criminal justice system in NJ, generally.

The report uses statistics to outline the racial disparity in criminal justice and law enforcement actions. For instance, 43% of people arrested in NJ for drug violations in 2019 were black, despite black residents making up only 15% of the population—and despite the fact that extensive research shows black people are no more likely to sell or use drugs than white people. Furthermore, the report found black residents make up 61% of the state’s jail population.

The data also illuminates how interactions between black people and officers on the street can lead to violence at disproportionate levels. Between October 2020 and February 2021, for instance, there were about 37 instances per day of cops using force. About 44% of those interactions involved black people; and, nearly two-thirds involved people under the influence or who had a mental illness.

More than half of all instances where police killed a resident escalated from nonviolent situations like traffic stops, mental health checks and domestic disputes. And the NJPP report authors use data to suggest the mechanisms for police oversight in New Jersey is lacking. For instance, of the 86 killings by police between 2015 and 2021, only four officers were charged with wrongdoing, while only half of those killed had a gun on them.

The report suggests that altering funding can improve outcomes. It uses Elizabeth as one case in point: Their police budget is 5.7 times greater than their health and human services budget (about $379 per capita for police, and $66 per capita for health and human services).

This is despite the fact that health and human services departments, like the one in Elizabeth, provide valuable resources like rental assistance, help with prescription drug payments, burial assistance for those who can’t afford funerals, plus health clinics, vaccines and screenings, and many more offerings that improve quality of life for those who wouldn’t be able to afford those services otherwise.

Investing in such services would be wise, the report’s authors, say, but in the last fiscal year, Elizabeth actually increased police funding and decreased health and human services funding. 

“The current system of public safety relies on a model of justice that disproportionately funds and prioritizes policing, rather than communities,” reads the report. “This model continues to target Black residents through racial profiling, aggressive policing, and mass incarceration. This also forces police officers to handle issues for which they often are not trained, such as in mental health, domestic violence, and substance use disorder.”

Indeed, one solution is to invest in alternative police methods, and the report uses Ithaca as an example. The small New York city is replacing its $12.5-million-annually, 62-person police department with a mixed group of professionals, some armed, some not, that can (in theory) better be deployed to handle a variety of situations.

Other solutions include improving access to health care, as “broader access to health care, especially substance use disorder treatment, is consistently linked to crime reduction,” the report found. Too, restoring neighborhoods with community input (as in, adding parks, repairing blighted land and removing vacant lots), and investing in community centers and early childhood education could help, too.

All it requires is a will to alter the direction of funds and thinking more holistically about how communities stay safe. Read the full report here