To the editor,
The recent murders of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, and Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia have sparked a massive uprising against racist police violence and the intimately connected conditions of poverty and inequality in the United States. Building on the work of the Black Lives Matter movement, and fueled by further examples of shocking police brutality, protesters in the streets have consolidated their message around calls to “defund the police.”
This concrete demand, while perhaps radical in appearance, is quite plain in its goal – to shrink the size of local police department budgets and instead support programs that actually solve the problems we face together.
The rapid mainstreaming of “defund the police” has surprised even long-time activists advocating for major structural changes to policing. With the rapid shift in how we talk about the problem of police violence comes the responsibility to reflect and seriously engage with protester demands.
What would the call to defund the police mean here in Oswego?
First, some context. According to a 2017 report published by the Urban Institute, the nationwide average for local government expenditures on policing is approximately eight percent of total annual budgets. This number accounts for the entire average cost of local police, from annual salaries to equipment expenses to training and overtime pay.
Yet this nationwide average does not reflect the city of Oswego’s funding commitments. According to Mayor Billy Barlow’s 2020 Operating and Enterprise Budget, policing in Oswego accounts for 13.4 percent the budget – or $4,489,561 of the $33,615,421 general fund appropriations. That’s a 67.5 percent increase on the national average.
Oswego’s elevated police budget is significant in real dollars. If we take the national average as a benchmark for local government action, 67.5 percent is an excess allocation of more than $1.8 million of the annual general fund beyond what we should expect to see. Real trade-offs are in play. By overfunding police, we choose to underfund crucial community support services. For example, the excess police budget allocation is more than the entire allocations for Oswego’s projected “Economic Assistance and Opportunity” and “Culture and Recreation” budgets combined.
Access to safe housing, specialized casework assistance, youth programming, and arts and cultural opportunities, among others – all of which help build and fortify the community we hope to live in – are severely under-resourced by the city as a consequence of over-resourcing police.
The effects of these budget commitments have wide impacts. The Oswego County Literacy Coalition estimates that roughly 17,000 adults in the county cannot read above a fifth-grade level. Because we know high illiteracy rates correlate with high unemployment and poverty, and because high unemployment and poverty correlate with higher rates of surveillance, criminalization, and policing, we can draw a straight line between underfunding community programs and services and disproportionate over-policing.
For those rebelling in the streets against brutal police killings, budgetary commitments to over-policing represent a naked investment in capacity for police violence against the communities they supposedly serve. The call to defund the police is a refusal of this violence. It is an invitation for us to reimagine what we could accomplish together with access to resources the police have hoarded.
Scholars and activists have long called our attention to the nature of systemic police violence and brutality in this country. Right now, politicians are reacting to the upheaval of the moment by offering myriad reform proposals — many of which have already been implemented and proven ineffective at actually curbing police violence. As Princeton University professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor recently argued in an essay published in the New Yorker, “We cannot insist on ‘real change’ in the United States by continuing to use the same methods, arguments, and failed political strategies that have brought us to this moment.”
Amidst this complex and fast moving struggle, we must begin to think differently. The future is ours to make. To defund the police in Oswego, and put into practice our insistence that black lives matter, we should start by slashing the police department budget. Taking back that $1.8 million excess is a good first step. By redistributing it to the community at our points of urgent economic need, and funding the programs and services that actually help us, we can interrupt the cycles of poverty breeding systemic police brutality.