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Police departments face one-two punch: Defund protests and coronavirus

A recent study found that leaders in 1,000 cities are expecting cuts to law enforcement spending.
Image: Metro Police monitor Black Lives Matter Plaza amid protests against racial inequality in Washington
Police gather outside St. John's Episcopal Church on Black Lives Matter Plaza amid protests against racial inequality near the White House on Wednesday.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Even before police reform and the defund movement gained steam, the nation's state and local law enforcement agencies were staring down a budgetary threat brought about by COVID-19.

Fiscal shortfalls stemming from a steep decline in revenues due to the coronavirus lockdown are hitting police departments in cities large and small, though many localities had sought to keep law enforcement-related cuts to a minimum in comparison with other services.

In Seattle, the mayor last week proposed $20 million in police budget cuts to help with COVID-19 revenue losses. Elsewhere, in cities like Las Vegas and Oklahoma City, police officials told NBC News coronavirus cuts are a pressing concern.

Across California, where the revenue hit has been severe statewide, cities were planning on police budget cuts ahead of the protests over George Floyd's death and police brutality. In Turlock, California, the savings measures even included freezing a vacant police chief position.

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In cities like New York City and Los Angeles, where leaders had sought to keep police budget cuts to a minimum or even boost law enforcement spending amid the coronavirus, local officials are now proposing substantial reductions as a result of the Floyd protests and the activist push for redistributing police funds. Though New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said he's not in favor of such a steep cut, a City Council-backed plan to slash $1 billion of police funding is on the table in New York.

Similar police budget cuts are under consideration in more than a dozen major cities nationwide in light of the ongoing protest movement.

In Tacoma, Washington, local officials are facing a $40 million budget shortfall in its general fund as well as a push for defunding amid protests.

Victoria Woodards, the Democratic mayor of Tacoma, told NBC News that with 68 percent of her city's spending devoted to public safety — 34 percent specifically on police — she doesn't "know how we get through the crisis without making a cut in an area that makes up 68 percent of your budget."

House Democrats passed a bill last month for nearly $1 trillion in state and local aid, though Republicans have not warmed to that substantial price tag. The Treasury Department has provided additional flexibility on the previously enacted CARES Act that has alleviated some of the strain on local governments, though as a recent National League of Cities study found, nearly 70 percent of cities have not received any funding through the legislation.

Last week, a Moody's Analytics report warned that should Congress fail to pass about $500 billion in emergency aid to state and local governments, about 4 million jobs — police among them — could be lost. A separate NLC study, this one conducted prior to the Floyd protests, found that leaders in 1,000 cities said COVID-19 budget shortfalls would probably affect police spending.

What to do about police budgets "is a big question from most municipal officials right now, given what is happening with the unrest and protest in American cities," said Clarence Anthony, CEO and executive director of the NLC and former mayor of South Bay, Florida.

"I would venture to say, as a former mayor in Florida, one of the things that is almost the last thing that you would cut is that public safety area," added Anthony, whose group is advocating for federal action on police reform. "But city officials are getting to that point where they're cutting at the bone of their local services. So we're seeing them having to look at everything."

Patrick Yoes, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said COVID-19 revenue shortfalls at the state and local level "strapped" many law enforcement agencies in the weeks leading up to widespread protests over the 46-year-old Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police and "created a major funding crisis like we've never seen before."

He said further cuts will leave police departments slashing spending on training and other areas "that build community support."

"Financially, this is going to be some tough times," he said. "Not just for law enforcement, for all city services."

Woodards, of Tacoma, said she agrees with the premise of activists calling for defunding law enforcement, adding the push is causing local leaders to "look hard at everything our police department does and decide: Should they be doing this or should this be done somewhere else? Or can we take that money and do something different with it?"

"Obviously, I think you have to have a police department," she added. "And I know there are lots of people in the community who believe that."

Woodards said she doesn't believe budget cuts imposed by the pandemic and the potential reallocation of funding as a result of the protest movement are "mutually exclusive at all. As we think about reform and budget cuts, we'll be able to look at those two together and say, 'What savings can we find and how does it meet the goal of restructuring or reforming our police department?'"

Law enforcement spending accounts for a significant chunk of local expenditures. As Richard Auxier, senior policy associate at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, said, "There are some towns that all they [fund] is police."

"If all you do is police and your budget gets shot, there's nowhere else to go," he added.

States, on the other hand, account for a far lesser amount of police spending and have not shared a desire for further spending cuts to state law enforcement agencies in the crisis.

In Pennsylvania, for example, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf "believes that appropriately funding an agency with the depth and breadth of responsibilities as the [Pennsylvania State Police] is of paramount importance," said his press secretary Lyndsay Kensinger.

She added: "Cutting funding for [state police] would affect law enforcement at every level in Pennsylvania."

In DeKalb County, Georgia, just outside of Atlanta, Commissioner Larry Johnson said additional policing cuts or layoffs and furloughs aren't on the agenda at the moment as local police are understaffed as it is. He said the county had earlier invested in an array of community programs, including those aimed at mental health and homelessness, and described what he called a "surreal" mix of issues at the present time for local lawmakers.

"You have a mix of: you're dealing with trauma, you're dealing with a virus and you're dealing with racism," he said. "Those are not a good mix."

CORRECTION (June 28, 2020, 12:25 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the first name of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf's press secretary. She is Lyndsay Kensinger, not Lyndsey.