Rates of violent crime are significantly lower today than they were just three decades ago, though many Americans assume otherwise. And still, police spending continues to go up despite downward trends in crime.
Violent crime peaked in 1991 at a rate of 758 incidents per 100,000 people, according to FBI data. Today, the rate is roughly half of that, at 398 incidents per 100,000 people.
Experts and researchers have not reached a consensus on what drove violent crime rates down so dramatically since 1991. Some speculate that low unemployment and a generally favorable economic climate disincentivized violent crime. Others cite a reduction in alcohol consumption—the Brennan Center attributes a nearly 8% drop in crime to this alone. An increase in police personnel and stricter policing tactics have also been evaluated but proved to be only a modest influence, accounting for no more than 10% of the crime decline.
Many studies have attempted to answer whether crime can be reduced by increasing the number of police officers on patrol. While results are split, generally, there is not a strong significant relationship between the two. But recent research from economist Morgan Williams shows the power of deterrence cannot be wholly discounted.
Using data from the FBI and other public sources for 242 cities between 1981 and 2018, Williams and his colleagues were able to quantify the value, in lives saved, of every new police officer added to a force. Every new officer prevents between 0.06 and 0.1 homicides. Therefore, the average city would need to hire between 10 and 17 new police officers—costing $1.3 to $2.2 million—to save one life a year. This is, perhaps surprisingly, a good return on investment, considering the value of a statistical life is about $10 million, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Williams also found that an increase in police leads to a reduction in other violent crimes, as well as violent crime arrests, suggesting that having a greater police presence can deter crime, not just lead to more incarceration.
Inflection points in recent history, particularly the death of George Floyd in 2020, have led to calls for police defunding and divestment. In many places nationwide, police are expected to fill the gaps where critical social services are inadequate—instead of investing in improved housing, more police are used to surveil disadvantaged neighborhoods or break up homeless encampments; and instead of investing in mental health and addiction resources, drug-related arrests are used as a temporary solution. Defunding police forces would mean reallocating some portion of police spending to these social services.
Stacker analyzed data from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy to examine how city spending on public safety has changed between 1980 and 2020, and how police funding has evolved within that category. The Fiscally Standardized Cities data includes normalized per capita data in 2020 dollars. Read more about how the Fiscally Standardized Cities data accounts for differences in government funding sources—municipal, county, and city—to create an apples-to-apples comparison for city spending on public safety.