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What Do Police Departments Spend Money On?

What do Police Departments Spend Money on?

With all the talk about defunding the police, you may be wondering what police departments spend money on. What are the most common expenses police departments have? What is their average budget? How much does the government pay for police departments?

Police departments spend most of their money paying salaries and benefits for current employees and retirement pensions for past employees. A smaller percentage of police department funds goes toward capital expenses such as equipment and technology upgrades and building maintenance.

Read on for a more detailed explanation of how police departments spend money, as well as information on their average budget, government funding, and why it costs so much to keep a police department operational.

Common Police Department Expenses

Like any business or corporation, police departments have expenses. These expenses must be met for the department to continue doing its job. In this section, we’ll take a more detailed look at the most common expenses police departments have.

Wages and Salaries

Being a police officer is a risky job that demands a decent salary. Though police officers are far from being the highest-paid members of the workforce, paying their wages and salaries takes a substantial chunk out of police department budgets.

One reason for this is the large number of officers most departments employ. Police departments are always open and are usually responsible for covering an entire city or district, so they must employ enough officers to cover every shift, every day and night.

Some of the largest police departments may employ hundreds if not thousands of officers. The NYPD, the oldest and largest department in the U.S., employs around 36,000 police officers.

And that’s only accounting for the officers. Many police departments also employ civilians. Civilian members of a police department may take on evidence and property related roles, as well as crime analysis, community services, budget, personnel, and report taking.

The NYPD employs around 19,000 civilians. Most departments have significantly fewer civilian employees, but civilians still make up a growing percentage of police workforces. 

Benefits

Along with wages and salaries, current police department employees are also paid in benefits. Due to the dangerous nature of the job, departments generally provide high-quality medical and life insurance plans to their officers. 

Other common benefits for police officers include paid time off, paid sick leave, overtime pay, retirement plans, and educational scholarships.

Retirement

Police departments are known for taking care of their own, even after retirement and, in some cases, after death.

Depending on the type of retirement plan in place, a department may continue to pay a sizable amount in the form of pensions for retired employees. These pensions may or may not include benefits in addition to wages.

Similarly, some departments will provide for the care of an officer’s family in the event an officer is disabled or killed in the line of duty. In these cases, families will often receive financial support in the form of death benefits, scholarships, and medical insurance. 

Equipment and Technology Upgrades

Police departments must keep their vehicles maintained and their officers equipped with the best technology to do their jobs well. Vehicle expenses can add up quickly, and of course, updates in technology aren’t exactly cheap either. 

In addition, nearly all departments provide uniforms, firearms, and any other necessary equipment for their officers. 

Building Maintenance

Police departments may also encounter expenses related to the department building and prison. If a software system goes down, a security system needs updating, or a plumbing problem comes up, the department will need to pay to have these problems fixed.

What is the Average Budget for Police Departments?

Salaries, retirement, equipment, maintenance–that all sounds expensive, doesn’t it? So the logical next question is, how much money do police departments have to work with? What are their average budgets?

As you may imagine, the annual budget varies widely between departments. Larger cities have larger police forces and, as a result, those police forces have a bigger budget to cover the expenses. Smaller departments in small cities will have fewer expenses and less money to work with.

Let’s take a look at the average police department budget in some of the largest U.S. cities and see how they compare against smaller cities.

Largest U.S. Cities

Many large U.S. cities, such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston, had annual budgets in the hundred millions and even billions in 2020. Some of that money comes from a general city fund, and some is allocated specifically to the police department.

Here are some numbers for 2020, courtesy of Statista:

City 2020 Budget General Fund Percentage
New York City $5.61 billion 7.7%
Los Angeles $1.73 billion 25.5%
Chicago $1.68 billion 37%
Houston $934 million 33.1%
Baltimore $536.4 million 26.4%
Detroit $330 million 29.9%
Atlanta $248.5 million 30.3%

Smaller Cities

You can find annual budget information for any police department by visiting the department city’s website. All of that city’s fiscal information, including the police budget, can be found in the city’s annual financial reports, which are available for the public to view.

For comparison purposes, the following table contains population and 2021 police budgets for Independence, Missouri, Flagstaff, Arizona, and Blacksburg, Virginia.

City Population Police Budget
Independence, MO 116,715 $35.5 milion
Flagstaff, AZ 75,752 $23.3 million
Blacksburg, VA 44,392 $9.3 million

Are Governments Spending More Money on Police Departments?

An ongoing question is, how much money should police departments have to spend? Are local governments allocating too much money to their police departments while other areas of city expenses are ignored? Are they spending more money on their police departments than they used to?

The statistics indicate that the percentage of the total budget spent on police departments has risen slightly over the past few decades–from 6.6% in 1977 to 7.8% in 2017 across the 150 largest U.S. cities.

This means that, at least among the cities included in the statistics, the police budget has grown by thousands if not millions of dollars each year. While it’s unlikely that every city in the U.S. has seen such drastic increases, chances are that the general trend toward spending more money on the police is fairly universal. 

Why are Police Departments so Expensive?

Why are Police Departments so Expensive?

The question of whether cities should spend so much on their police departments is a debate for another time. But another relevant question is, why do police departments cost so much in the first place?

We already looked at a breakdown of the most common expenses police departments have. In this section, we’ll take a closer look at why these costs are as high as they are. 

  • It’s a dangerous job. Being a police officer means putting your life at risk every day. Some people believe police officers are paid too much, while others believe they don’t earn enough for the job they do. 

At the end of the day, the nature of the job demands that the people doing it be paid well, not only in salary but in benefits. When you go to work every day knowing you could be killed on the job, you need to have some means to provide for your family or your own medical expenses should anything happen.

  • There are no off days. The police department doesn’t close for Sundays, holidays, or pandemics. They employ enough staff to work 24/7/365–again, this is simply the nature of the work.

Because the police department is never closed, it must be able to employ enough staff to cover every shift. The sheer volume of people needed to cover all that time is a big reason police departments have such high expenses.

  • Departments are multi-faceted. Police departments employ many different kinds of people for many different specializations. They may have several different types of vehicles and equipment, all of which must be maintained in proper working order.

Police departments also respond to various types of emergencies and civil disputes, from domestic violence cases to drownings to drug busts. In a word, their job is unpredictable. 

They need to be able to hire the right people, enough people, and keep everything working smoothly all the time. Preparing for any unexpected situation can itself become quite expensive.

Conclusion

Police departments spend money on many different factors. The largest percentage of their budgets go toward paying salaries, benefits, and pensions, but they also must pay for equipment, technology, and building maintenance.

All of these expenses can add up quickly, especially in larger cities. People disagree whether city budgets need to allocate such a high percentage of funds to the police department. Regardless of which side of the argument you’re on, police operations are a costly part of any city’s overall budget.

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