As New York City mayor Eric Adams and the Democratic city council bicker over the forthcoming city budget for fiscal year 2024, due July 1, one progressive talking point—that out-of-control police spending consumes resources needed to fund schools, libraries, and mental-health care—is becoming a cliché. Just one problem: as a share of the city’s budget, police spending isn’t growing. In fact, it’s lower than it has been in 40 years. Police spending isn’t crowding out education and social-services spending. The opposite is true, as my new paper for the Manhattan Institute reveals. If anything, education spending has crowded out police spending.
The idea that police spending is devouring resources predates the defund-the-police movement that intensified after the May 2020 death of George Floyd. In April of that year, a coalition of nearly 100 New York advocacy groups, ranging from the Legal Aid Society to the Riders Alliance transit group, called on then-mayor Bill de Blasio to cut police spending. “Historically, city government has spent far more on police than on public health, homeless services, youth services and other vital agencies,” the groups wrote.
Three years later, progressive city council members have carried this line into a new budget season. The progressive caucus, comprising 19 of 51 members, says that it will “do everything we can to reduce the size and scope of the NYPD.”
Progressive council member Tiffany Cabán of Queens observed that “the mayor is trying to cut $75 [million] from libraries over the next four years. . . . $75 [million] is 0.013 [percent] of the NYPD’s operating budget for just one year.”
The rhetoric does not square with reality. Over the four decades since New York City began emerging from the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, its budget rose consistently, far outpacing inflation. In 1980, New York City spent about $13.5 billion, or $47.9 billion in inflation-adjusted modern dollars. In 2023 (the fiscal year of which ends June 30), the city spent $107.6 billion annually, representing an increase of 124.5 percent in real terms.
Counting only spending funded by city taxpayers (that is, subtracting federal and state grants), city spending in 1980 was $32.2 billion in today’s dollars; by 2023, it was $78.8 billion, or an increase of 144.6 percent from 1980 levels.
As spending has gone up, the size of the city’s workforce has increased. In 1980, New York City employed 195,563 full-time workers. In 2022, the figure was 282,498. Though the 2022 figure was down from all-time highs of 2019 and 2020, it represented growth of 44.5 percent over four decades.
By far the fastest-growing category of spending is public education. In 1980, inflation-adjusted spending on education (including public college) was $10.8 billion. By 2021, such spending had reached $31.7 billion, representing real growth of 193.5 percent.
Spending on health and social services (not including education) has grown more slowly, but it started from a much higher base. In 1980, spending on this category was $13.8 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars. This spending grew 56.8 percent by 2021, to $21.6 billion.
Spending on uniformed services—fire and sanitation, in addition to police and corrections—grew from $5.3 billion to $12 billion, a growth of 126 percent. (None of these figures includes pension or other benefits spending, but only current operations.) The growth in spending on uniformed services, then, is in line with overall city spending growth, but slower than city-funded growth (not including the state and federal grants).
Because of the city’s changing priorities, the four uniformed services have only maintained their budget share: 11 percent in 1980; and 11.2 percent in 2021. By contrast, education’s share of the budget has grown, from 22.5 percent to 29.6 percent.
Police spending alone has shrunk. In 1980, the city’s NYPD budget was 5.2 percent of the overall city budget; by 2022, policing made up just a 4.9 percent share.
The impact is clear from the size of Gotham’s police force. The city reached a high in uniformed police staffing at the turn of the millennium. In 2000, the city’s 40,285 uniformed police officers represented a 49.7 percent increase over 1980 force levels. By 2022, the city’s uniformed headcount of 34,825 represented a 13.6 percent drop from that peak. Uniformed police accounted for just 12 percent of the city workforce in 2021—significantly below not only the 16.1 percent high reached in 2000 but also the 13.8 percent share of the workforce in 1980.
The 5.2 percent of operational spending that the city budget could spare for policing in 1980 was not a preferred outcome. It was the result of a half-decade of job cuts as the city grappled with its 1970s fiscal crisis. In the early 1980s, as Mayor Edward I. Koch (in office from 1978 through 1989) rebuilt New York’s tax base, police spending rose dramatically as a share of the budget, to 6.4 percent by 1988. The police department further expanded in the early to mid-1990s, as Mayors David Dinkins (1990–93) and Rudolph W. Giuliani (1994–2001) both fought crime. Police spending hit a record high of 8.8 percent of the city budget in 2002.
Since then, however, police spending has dropped dramatically. Under Mayors Michael R. Bloomberg (2002–13) and Bill de Blasio (2014–21), police spending fell, for different political and policy reasons. Bloomberg said that more efficient management would reduce the need for officers. De Blasio kept the force lean partly to deliver on his antipolice rhetoric and partly to fund his other priorities, including expanded prekindergarten, homeless services, and social services (including mental-health care).
As New York voters have long been attentive to crime rates, both mayors implied by their actions that low crime reduced the need for cops. Since hitting a record low between 2017 and 2019, though, serious crime has soared, with the felony level, as of March 2023, 49 percent higher than in 2019.
Mayor Adams has made progress in slashing the murder level from modern highs in 2020 and 2021, but only through the use of massive police overtime shifts. After a police surge in the subways in the fall of 2022, for example, following four subway murders in a month, New York suffered just one subway murder in the first three months of 2023.
Yet this overtime is impossible for the police department to maintain. Even as progressives shout “defund,” moderates, including the mayor, must ask whether the NYPD is too lean to push crime down closer to its pre-pandemic levels.
Photo by Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images