August 3, 2020


The economic upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with calls to “defund the police,” are already affecting many police agencies’ budgets, with more to come. Some of the nation’s largest police departments, including the New York City Police Department and the Los Angeles Police Department, have already seen their budgets slashed.

To assess the impact on police budgets nationally, PERF recently sent a questionnaire to member police chiefs and sheriffs, asking about changes to their agencies’ budgets and operations. Responses were received from 258 PERF member agencies between July 13-24, 2020.

Nearly half of the responding agencies reported actual or anticipated decreases to their budgets in the new or upcoming fiscal year, with most of the reductions in the 5-10% range. These cuts are impacting a variety of agency operations, including equipment, training, and hiring of both sworn and civilian personnel. Respondents expressed concern that hasty decisions to cut police funding without alternative plans being put in place will have a negative impact on public safety, community support, and officer wellness.

Today’s Critical Issues report summarizes the findings of PERF’s questionnaire on budget impacts prompted by COVID-19 and calls to defund the police.

“The danger I see is the rush to cut budgets, and therefore services, without any plan for how the needs are going to be addressed. “I see crime rates increasing rapidly.”

– Chief William Pittman, Nantucket, MA Police Department

“The Seattle Police Department is committed to a thoughtful, community-driven re-envisioning of community safety and our role. We cannot support blunt cuts that are not informed by data or supported by detailed plans.”

-- Chief Carmen Best, Seattle Police Department


About the Questionnaire

On July 13, 2020, PERF distributed a 12-item questionnaire to all PERF General and Subscribing members who are police chiefs or sheriffs (approximately 800 in all).

A total of 258 agencies responded to the questionnaire.

Respondents represented a mix of small-, medium- and large-sized agencies. Approximately 46% of respondents were medium-sized agencies (50-249 officers); the remaining 54% were split almost evenly between large (250+ officers) and small (1-49 officers) agencies. The agencies ranged in size from 9 to 9,970 full-time sworn officers.


Nearly Half of Agencies Are Experiencing Budget Cuts

Nearly half of the responding agencies (48%) said their budgets have been decreased or likely will be decreased in the next fiscal year. Another 27% said their budgets would be unchanged.

Only 16% expected budget increases.

58% of the large agencies (250 or more sworn officers) that responded to the PERF questionnaire said their budgets were being cut, compared to 46% of medium-sized agencies and 41% of small agencies.

By contrast, only 14% of large agencies, 16% of medium-sized agencies, and 20% of small agencies are seeing budget increases.


How Much Are Agency Budgets Being Cut?

Agencies that indicated their budgets were being cut were asked to provide an actual or estimated percentage reduction they were facing. Among the 105 agencies that responded,most (66 agencies) said the cuts would be in the 5-10% range.  Another 23 agencies said they expected cuts of less than 5%. Eight agencies said the cuts would be 10-15% of their total budget; another 8 said the cuts would exceed 15%.

It should be noted that many respondents reported that they are still in the budget process and did not have actual or estimated percentages at the time of the questionnaire.


A Variety of Agency Operations Are Being Impacted

Agencies experiencing budget reductions were asked which agency operations would be cut. The most frequently cited areas were:

  • Equipment (91 agencies),
  • Training (84 agencies),
  • Hiring sworn officers (79 agencies),
  • Hiring civilian personnel (78 agencies), and
  • Overtime spending (74 agencies).

Equipment In an effort to reduce the effect of budget cuts on personnel levels, some agencies reported scaling back or postponing purchases of new equipment or updates to existing equipment, and delaying technology updates.  Agencies are also looking for ways to extend the life of current equipment and technology to push new purchases into future fiscal years.   

“We’re attempting to minimize the impact on staffing by delaying equipment purchases. Overtime spending will significantly increase if staffing is cut or frozen.”

– Sheriff David Mahoney, Dane County, WI


Special Units:  Some chiefs said cuts in their personnel budgets are forcing them to scale back or eliminate specialized units such as K9, SWAT, plainclothes divisions, cold case investigations, and community policing programs in order to maintain patrol staffing. 

“We are reducing personnel by taking small numbers from specific units rather than eliminating the unit completely. We are reshaping patrol teams’ areas of responsibility and moving some call types to alternate reporting (online or call-back from modified duty personnel).”

-- Chief Sylvia Moir, Tempe, AZ Police Department


Training:  Several respondents to PERF’s questionnaire said that having to cut back their training budgets was creating a Catch-22 situation in terms of their reform initiatives. They pointed out that reform legislation and new policies often require additional training. Cuts to police training could make it more difficult to successfully implement reforms.

“Police reform legislation usually comes with a cost, and trying to fund new initiatives while budgets are being cut is challenging. As I look to increase my implicit bias and use-of-force training, the budget for those things is being removed from me.

“Police chiefs feel the pain of trying to implement these reforms, while many elected officials are unable or unwilling to also provide the funding. This is especially difficult in smaller organizations where the budget margin is much smaller.

– Chief Corey Christensen, Steamboat Springs, CO Police Department


Agencies Are Having to Cancel or Postpone Hiring New Officers, and Are Not Filling Vacancies

Among all agencies responding to PERF’s questionnaire, 36% (92 agencies) said they planned to cancel or postpone the hiring of new officers in the current or upcoming fiscal year. 

In addition, many agencies reported having to keep vacant positions open, and using current officers to fill gaps in staffing, especially in patrol.  While some agencies can use overtime to compensate for fewer officers, others are finding that overall reductions in staffing will result in fewer officers on the street, and a diminished capacity to engage in proactive policing and problem-solving. 

“Our challenge is to make sure that staffing is sufficient to meet our call load, and also sufficient to conduct community engagement, because building trust and relationships is really the core function of community safety.

“It’s not how many arrests you make, or how many citations you’re issuing. It’s whether you have the time and resources to engage effectively with the community, to do problem-solving, and take on the issues that impact the sense of safety in a community.”

– Chief Michel Moore, Los Angeles Police Department


Some Agencies Are Reporting Budget Increases

While most agencies reported that their budgets were being cut or remaining unchanged, about 1 in 6 said their budgets were increasing. In general, these agencies reported that the additional funds will be used to cover contractually required pay increases for personnel, hiring more officers, and equipment repairs and upgrades. 

For example, the Riverdale Park, MD Police Department said it would be making equipment purchases related to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Other departments plan to enhance community outreach programs.

“We have expanded some of our services to the community and are enhancing community engagement efforts going forward. We’re also upgrading areas of our department via training opportunities, equipment upgrades, and policy adjustments.

“But we may see cuts down the road, as the COVID pandemic continues and tax revenues continue to decrease.”

– Chief Russ Hamill, Laurel, MD Police Department


Will Budget Cuts Have a “Domino Effect” on Public Safety and Officer Wellness?

Respondents to the PERF questionnaire said they worry that cutting police budgets will be detrimental to policing and public safety in their communities. They are concerned that reduced funding could create a “domino effect,” with fewer officers on patrol, slower response times, increased crime, reduced community support, and decreases in officer morale and wellness. 

“Budget cuts will most greatly affect a police department’s ability to be proactive, which is how the majority of crime prevention and quality-of-life preservation happens.

“When police turn into pure responders, with little to no proactive work, crime and disorder will almost certainly increase in just about every community, and especially in the mid- to larger-sized cities.”

-- Chief Joseph Bartorilla, Middletown Township, PA Police Department   

Some respondents to the PERF questionnaire expressed concern that budget cuts would hurt officer wellness and the ability to attract new people to the profession. In recent years, police departments and sheriffs’ offices have grappled with an apparent increase in officer suicides. Budget cuts, combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, street protests aimed at the police, and calls for defunding, are adding to the substantial stress that officers face.  Police executives are concerned about their officers’ mental health in the current environment.

“This year has foisted tremendous amounts of change tied to COVID,  civil unrest, and political vitriol, on top of all the other things that officers cannot control. If we do not appropriately address these pressures, we can expect to see a general deterioration in the mental health of our personnel and likely an increase in suicides by officers.”

– Chief Max Geron, Rockwall, TX Police Department


Navigating an Uncertain Future

As many agencies plan for budget decreases and consider how the future of policing may change, some police chiefs and sheriffs are working to find alternative sources of funding.  Some departments are researching and applying for additional grants; others are turning to support from nonprofit police foundations.  

Some agencies are also working to adjust some of their business processes. For example, in an effort to better triage calls for service, some jurisdictions are looking to re-route some calls related to mental health, homelessness, and substance abuse away from the police and to medical and social service partners.  

And police executives are looking for leadership from PERF and other organizations to help refocus the national dialogue regarding police reform.

“I hope that organizations such as PERF, IACP, FBINAA, and others continue to push forward the narrative that defunding police departments is not in the best interest of society as a whole. While most police executives welcome the ideas of certain police reforms, such as better hiring and termination rules, the solution is not to just take a large amount of money from the police and send it elsewhere.”

– Chief Michael Marks, Whitehall Township, PA Police Department


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.

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