President Joe Biden recently called on cities and states to dedicate their remaining American Rescue Plan dollars to law enforcement and public safety – and to “deploy as many dollars as possible before the summer months when many communities historically experience a seasonal increase in violent crime.”
Following this advice would not only disrupt the participatory, deliberative processes that many local governments are leading to decide how to use these once-in-a-generation resources, it also would be shortsighted.
Our research points to a myriad ways local governments are using and can use their recovery funds to build healthy, vibrant communities for all.
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Reaching marginalized communities
Leading localities are carefully targeting funds to reach historically excluded and marginalized communities:
►Washington, D.C., is helping returning citizens access stable housing and gainful employment.
►Portland, Oregon, is supporting artists of color.
►Buffalo, New York, created a business support program that includes helping college graduates of color launch businesses.
►In Los Angeles County, an overwhelming majority of first-phase resources were allocated to help neighborhoods that have been hit hard by the pandemic. This is thanks to the efforts of a coalition of community advocacy organizations that pushed the local government to adopt a set of equity principles to guide the distribution of resources – including not pouring more funding into policing or incarceration.
Housing, transportation, opportunity
Many cities are wisely using COVID-19 relief to address their housing crises. Keeping people in their homes is a critical use of funds, particularly given the lingering rent debt caused by the pandemic, sunsetting emergency rental assistance programs and eviction protections and skyrocketing rents.
Detroit – where just 4% of renters had legal representation in 2017 compared with 83% of landlords – set aside $6 million to establish a right to counsel program, with an additional $12 million expected to come from private funders. New York also used its recovery funds to expand its successful right to counsel program. Louisville, Kentucky, expanded its court eviction diversion program.
Building and retaining permanently affordable housing is another wise use of pandemic relief. Kansas City, Missouri, Cincinnati, Ohio, and Savannah, Georgia, invested in housing trust funds to produce rental housing for low-income residents. Washington dedicated the city’s resources toward the expansion of a local community land trust to prevent displacement in its fast-gentrifying southwest quadrant.
Cities are also translating recovery funds into economic opportunity. New York and Buffalo supported public jobs programs that create living-wage jobs for residents of high-poverty neighborhoods while improving neighborhood environments. Chicago used its resources to launch the largest guaranteed income program in the United States, which will increase economic security for 5,000 low-income families. Boston is expanding its fare-free bus pilot to three bus lines for two years.
Our research also has uncovered what it takes for local governments to use their investments to expand opportunities for the communities hardest hit by the pandemic and bear the greatest burdens of systemic racism: community advocacy and partnership, equity leadership and commitment from the top, and institutional infrastructure for equitable policymaking.
Millions allocated for police
Many cities – including some of the cities with other, more equity-focused investments – are already plowing their pandemic aid into expanded police budgets:
►The city of Los Angeles sharply diverged from Los Angeles County and allocated about half of its first round of American Rescue Plan money to fund its police department.
►Washington, D.C., spent $2.5 million to hire more parking enforcement officers.
►Kansas City expects to hire up to 150 police officers.
►Memphis, Tennessee, dedicated $12 million to public safety recruitment incentives.
Research on recovery investments from the Southern Economic Advancement Project reveals that most smaller, Southern cities are allocating the majority of their pandemic relief toward “revenue replacement” – much of which will go to policing, given the proportion of city budgets that go to law enforcement departments.
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The White House is encouraging more of the same. But the American Rescue Plan shouldn’t support activities that harm and negatively target communities of color, such as policing, jails, prisons and surveillance. There is a smarter investment strategy to build safe, resilient communities.
Precious federal recovery resources should go toward meeting the urgent needs of the people, workers and communities most impacted by COVID-19, and investing in remedies for the structural inequities that the pandemic laid bare and exacerbated. These include access to health care/mental health services, broadband, healthy food, parks and green space and quality child care, in addition to housing and economic security.
Bigger police budgets don’t necessarily cut crime
There is positive evidence that investing in communities’ well-being and economic security – through summer youth employment, mental health care, guaranteed income and neighborhood improvements – reduces crime.
Unlike additional policing, these investments do not result in more arrests, incarceration and police killings of Black and brown people. And, despite being inadequately funded, they illustrate that opportunity wins over suppression every time.
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Moreover, there is no clear correlation between increased police budgets and crime reduction.
New York City and Chicago increased their police budgets by $465 million (4.7%) and $147.3 million (9.2%). Still, crime surged in both cities by 41% and 36%, respectively, in the first few months of this year.
All U.S. cities and counties are home to unconscionable racial inequities that cannot be fixed without disrupting racial bias in local policymaking and making meaningful investments in the communities that have been shut out of urban prosperity.
Some localities are using an equity lens to guide policymaking and listening to the communities that are typically excluded from budget discussions to use these rare, flexible and fleeting federal funds in ways that build healthy, thriving cities for generations to come. More should follow their lead.
Fatimah Alkhaldi and Chidera Ihejirika are research associates at the Institute on Race, Power and Political Economy at The New School. Eliza McCullough is an associate at PolicyLink, where Sarah Treuhaft is the vice president of research.
This column is part of a series by USA TODAY Opinion about police accountability and building safer communities. The project began in 2021 by examining qualified immunity and continues in 2022 by examining various ways to improve law enforcement. The project is made possible in part by a grant from Stand Together, which does not provide editorial input.