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Investing in Public Safety: How Police are Funded

November 9, 2023

Safety is top of mind for all of California’s communities. Local agencies, such as Sheriff and Police Departments, are charged with enforcing the law and ensuring our communities are safe.  Because of the important role these agencies play in our day-to-day lives, understanding where funding for policing comes from is critical when determining who and what keeps us safe, and when showing up to the ballot box on election day.

There are several types of law enforcement agencies in the United States, including local, state, and federal agencies. At the state and local level, we have police departments, which serve our cities, county sheriffs, which serve non-incorporated parts of counties, state police, such as the California Highway Patrol (CHP), and special jurisdiction officers operating in parks, schools, and other specified areas.

Technically, yes – our tax dollars pay for law enforcement, but there’s more to it. Law enforcement agencies are funded through federal, state, and local contributions. Most funding, however, comes from local sources, and the amount varies depending on factors such as crime rate, city size, location, and wealth. The revenue for city and county police funding comes from property, business, and sales taxes, federal and state grants, local fees and fines, and voter-approved general and special sales taxes (cite). Despite the many factors contributing to funding, policing consistently appears as a top spending and investment category in California.

Law enforcement funding sources:

According to the California State Controller’s Office, in the 2021-22 fiscal year cities spent $14.82 billion on police expenditures, making up the highest category of spending at 14.8% of total expenditures in the state (cite). Compared to the $11.78 billion spent in 2017, California cities have spent 25% more on policing over the last 5 years, including during the height of the “defund the police” movement that happened as a response to the killing of George Floyd (cite). In addition to city spending, counties spent $7.46 billion on police protection in the same year (cite), and $3.2 billion of the 2022-23 California state budget was allocated to the California Highway Patrol (CHP) (cite). 

Local police departments also receive funding from Federal Grant programs. Most notably, the Department of Justice offers the Community Oriented Policing Services Program (COPS), which has invested over $14 billion in community policing since 1994 (cite), and the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program (Byrne JAG) which has funded over $7.6 billion in awards since 2005 (cite).

Although less substantial than federal, state, and local funding, police foundations are non-profits that act as supplemental funding for police departments through private donations allocated for equipment and technology, specialized training, and outreach programs. Because of their charity status, police foundations rarely disclose their donors, however a report by the Public Accountability Initiative found that over 25 large corporations have donated to private police foundations across the country, including Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and Target (cite).

As community members and taxpayers, we must understand where the funding for our resources and safety comes from, and who the key players are behind the institutions in charge of our wellbeing. We know that community safety exists when we eliminate the fear of losing our homes, of being unable to pay for healthcare, of the necessity of reporting to unsafe and underpaid working conditions, and the fear of having our rights violated. 

As we near the 2024 primary election in March, it is imperative that the leaders we elect and the policies we enact address this holistic approach to community safety, and that investments in public safety reflect long-term solutions and community values.

Find out how much funding your police dept. has:

Californians are encouraged to look up and understand how their law enforcement agencies are funded.

A good place to start is the National Police Funding Database, which is easy to use and outlines police funding sources, grants, and demographic information. Community members can also view local budgets, in their entirety, by visiting their city’s website. Users can also find city council agendas, meeting minutes, and reports about the various agencies.

Part of an Investing in Public Safety series.