Budget analysis and advocacy is a vital step in defunding police and instituting needed reforms of justice systems world-wide

Budget analysis and advocacy is a vital step in defunding police and instituting needed reforms of justice systems world-wide

The murder of George Floyd by police officers in the United States sparked waves of Black Lives Matter protests across the country and around the world. Even in the face of a pandemic and sometimes violent government responses, marchers filled the streets calling for racial justice and an end to police abuses.

Rising out of the movement came a call, one with a specific budget emphasis: Defund the Police.

Though by no means new, defunding the police has, in the last few months, gone from a radical idea to actual policy in a few large cities in the United States. At its core, it is a call to reprioritize how public resources are used to ensure public safety by reducing the funding of police and redistributing that money to other public services, such as mental health care and housing. The goal is to redirect resources away from the police and towards these other services that can better address community needs.

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A crucial part of understanding what it would mean to “defund the police” is understanding police budgets. If the goal is to change the priorities of the police – and their role in the community — budget decisions are pre-cursors to any transformation. This type of budget work can be difficult, but – as examples around the world have shown – it is possible. And budget analysis and advocacy is a necessary step in reforming policing and instituting needed change.


Activists interested in engaging on police budgets will encounter a set of challenges, some of which are unique.

First, it is important to recognize that policing is but one component to a broader public safety and justice system. Other institutions – such as jails and public prosecutors and defenders – will have their own funding separate from the police. Effective reform that reduces police abuses and racial inequities in the justice system will inevitably have to engage with these institutions.

Next, who delivers policing varies greatly between countries, and often even within a single country. Overlapping jurisdictions and levels of government can police the same community, which makes tracking funding more complex than simply finding one line item in one budget. And in some countries, policing is delivered by military units or militarized police departments. Military spending is generally less transparent than other sectors, but such spending can be tracked  – one example is the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s work on military expenditure in Latin America and Africa, which intersects with police budgets.

Additionally, both the benefits and costs of policing policies are poorly understood. Though there has been some work to improve this, notably by the Vera Institute, it can be difficult for both policy makers and activists to fully understand the relationship between spending and policing outcomes.   If one knows the costs and benefits of particular policing policies and their associated budget items, it will be easier to identify what funds should be cut and redirected.

Finally, working on police budgets potentially opens activists to personal risks. As part of a country’s overall security system, policing is often seen as off-limits. In these circumstances, activists will have to fight to access the information and may have to adapt their strategies to be effective. This type of work potentially places them as adversaries to an armed government institution.

Over-policed and under-policed

In practice, the problems with policing manifest in two ways: over-policing, which is harsh police enforcement of often non-violent crimes, and under-policing, where serious or violent crimes are ignored. It is possible for a community to suffer from both issues at once – for example, police may respond with a heavy hand to enforce selling items on the street without a license, but then ignore and fail to solve serious and violent crimes.

Much of the work that civil society organizations and activists have done on police budgets has involved examining the cost of policing, highlighting increases in funding particularly when compared to other social services. This connects primarily with over-policing, as police budgets often swell as they are tasked with responding to a host of social ills, including housing insecurity or drug addiction. In the most extreme cases of over-policing, some police forces have been used to extract revenue from poor and marginalized communities.

In the United States, the Vera Institute has created a dashboard that compiles FY 2020 data on police budgets in 72 of the largest cities. Similarly, the Center for Popular Democracy, Law for Black Lives, and the Black Youth Project 100 collaborated on a report published in 2017 that examined racial disparities and police budgets in 12 cities, and they recently updated the data for 2020. The Urban Institute has also compiled data on state and local funding of police and corrections in the United States, as has the Institute for Southern Studies on major southern American cities. Several organizations have done analysis and/or advocacy on specific police departments, such as the Vera Institute in New York City, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute in Washington, DC, and People’s Budget LA, a coalition of organizations led by Black Lives Matter Los Angeles.

Similar analysis has also been done around the world, notably by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, which has looked at Uganda, Kenya, and India. And IBP recently used the World Bank’s BOOST database to compare budgets and actual expenditures in 19 countries, finding that, on average, actual expenditures on police functions were overspent by 2.2 percent, while overall budgets were underspent by 10 percent.

As policing is but one component of a wider security and justice system, many of IBP’s partner organizations have taken a more holistic approach to examining police budgets. For example, the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability provided budget analysis for the India Justice Report 2019, which examined the entire justice system, including policing, in 25 states in India. Meanwhile, BudgIt annually produces easy-to-understand infographics of Nigeria’s security budget, which includes policing. And as part of their work on public security in Brazil, INESC conducted budget analysis of Pronasci, a federal policing and criminal justice reform program.

When it comes to under-policing, perhaps the best example of civil society budget advocacy comes out of South Africa.

An IBP partner, the Social Justice Coalition, led a coalition of organizations to advocate for the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry into policing in Khayelitsha, one of South Africa’s largest townships and home to a majority of Cape Town’s informal settlement residents.  The Commission found significant problems in policing in Khayelitsha, notably that the police resources, including funding, were biased against poor black communities.

SJC and their partners took the Government to court over inequitable distribution of resources, particularly how many personnel were assigned to each precinct, and were successful, with the Equality Court returning a judgement in late 2018 that recognized that the allocation of police resources was fundamentally discriminatory against black communities. Work to fix under-policing in black communities in South Africa continues, particularly in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, with restrictions and their enforcement being applied inequitably across racial and economic lines.

A way forward

Defunding the police is fundamentally a budget question.

Activists that want to reform policing will inevitably have to address police budgets, and there is much work still to be done on this front. The allocations of the limited public resources found in the budget have a direct impact on the lives of people, particularly those living in poor and marginalized communities that are often most affected by police abuses.

Communities must be given a say in how public money is being spent by their government, including on policing. To reimagine policing, governments and communities should work together to reimagine how the budget is set.

Every day around the world activists are using public budgets to require more progressive policing and to reform justice systems. This work is transforming lives in many communities and has the potential to re-set spending priorities and their impact on marginalized communities for generations to come.

Police reforms require budget reforms

Police reforms require budget reforms

The video of the brutal and senseless killing of George Floyd, an African American, by a white police officer in the United States  has captured the attention of the public around the world. Floyd was the most recent in a series of killings of unarmed black people by security personnel. Thus, what we see is a cumulative, collective wave of frustration and rage, pushing people into the streets to demand racial justice.

A key demand of the protestors is to “defund” police budgets. They argue that police forces are increasingly militarized and using disproportionate force to engage with people, especially people of color, with inevitably bloody outcomes. The protestors also argue that the police have increasingly taken on functions in communities for which they are unprepared and that are best handled by mental health professionals and social workers.

While most media reports focus on police budgets in the U.S., we decided to look at government spending on policing from a global perspective. Data on budgets are not easy to access in many countries—as our latest Open Budget Survey painfully concludes—and even when budget documents are published, they often lack sufficient details to enable meaningful analysis of a government’s priorities. But we were able to use data from the World Bank’s BOOST database to compare budgets and actual expenditures incurred for policing functions in 19 countries* over a multi-year period. (On average, for each country, we were able to obtain budget and expenditure data for the most recent four to nine years).

The most striking finding from the data is that in the 19 countries we analyzed, overall budgets were underspent by 10% on average (in other words, spending was less than what was allocated in the approved national budget). To put this in perspective: The degree of underspending is equivalent to what would be needed for an entire health or education budget in many of these countries. In contrast, the actual expenditures on police functions were slightly overspent by approximately 2%.

As the chart below shows, in every region of the world for which data were available, police budgets are either significantly overspent or are underspent by much less than the overall national budgets.

In individual countries, the problem is even more striking. For example:

  • Uganda overspent its police budget by 16% between 2010 and 2016 but failed to spend 1 out of every 4 budgeted dollars. Shockingly, Uganda underspent its immunization budget by more than 75% even as the government declared vaccine shortages on five occasions.
  • In Mexico, the budget for police services was overspent by $2.3 billion between 2009 and 2016.
  • In the Solomon Islands, the government exceeded the police budget by an average of 3% between 2009 and 2015, while the total budget was underspent by approximately 30%.

These examples suggest that police budgets in many countries tend to be protected from in-year reductions—even as other government functions and investments suffer from under-execution.

There are also other critical issues surrounding the equitable use of police budgets that must be analyzed and discussed with a country’s people. For example, our South African partner, the Social Justice Coalition, analyzed the assignment of police personnel to different jurisdictions and found that more police were assigned to neighborhoods with lower rates of violent crime (largely white and rich communities) than to neighborhoods with higher rates (largely black and poor).

Although police perform the vital functions of maintaining law and order and protecting society from violence, in some cases, police abuse their authority and engage in corrupt practices, use excessive force, target people unjustly (as with racial profiling), and fail to protect the most marginalized segments of society. The police are often seen as partisan government enforcers who silence dissenting voices, including those of journalists, human rights activists and peaceful protestors. Last year, the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions on the former head of the Ugandan police force for human rights abuses and his involvement in corruption. More recently, the Ugandan police have been accused of using excessive force, including beating fruit sellers and arresting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youths under the guise of enforcing COVID-19 related shutdowns.

While much attention has been focused on specific demands for police reform, justice is like all government functions: It has a significant fiscal dimension. Questions of police reform ultimately boil down to government budget decisions and the values they embody. Fiscal justice cannot be achieved without the participation of impacted communities in budget decisions. For this to happen, people must be empowered with information on government budgets and obtain access to formal mechanisms for engaging with governments during budget decision-making.

There can be no justice without open budgets.

*Afghanistan, Albania, Armenia, Benin, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Haiti, Kenya, Mexico, Moldova, Paraguay, Peru, Poland, Solomon Islands, Uganda, Ukraine and Uruguay