Emory Law Journal


This Article contextualizes the police defunding movement and the backlash it has generated. The defunding movement emerged from the work of Black-led activists to reassert democratic control over policing and shift resources to social service agencies and other institutions serving community needs. In reaction, states have enacted anti-defunding bills checking local government reduction of law enforcement budgets. These anti-defunding measures continue a long tradition of state and federal control over local police spending, subverting local democratic control over police agencies. These limits include direct legal constraints on local police spending and indirect constraints through grants and authorization to collect fines, fees, and forfeitures. These mechanisms form a ratchet, bribing local governments to increase police spending and then mandating them to maintain it, at the eventual cost of cutting social services. This leaves cities little choice but to try to police their way out of the problems of poverty and inequality. Thus, constraints on local police funding help explain the decades-long shift of resources from social welfare to law enforcement. The problem revealed by the defunding controversy is not just the size of police budgets but also the perverse process determining those budgets. Before police agencies can be right-sized or reformed, police budgeting must be put in the hands of the people policed.

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