That fact that something needs to change in the way policing works in the United States isn’t debated.

Nearly everyone, regardless of political ideology, can agree that things aren’t working.

Exactly what changes need to occur — that’s where the debate lies.

The attorney general believes that we’ve become too soft on crime — that restarting the War on Drugs and enforcing mandatory minimum sentences is the way to go.

Others, like Senator Kamala Harris, recommend a preventative and humane approach that emphasizes opportunity, forgiveness, and rehabilitation.

Recently, The Center for Popular Democracy, working alongside Law for Black Lives and Black Youth Project 100, released a study that suggests a financial approach needs to be taken if we’re going to mend our police departments.

The study looked at how much 12 city and county governments around the nation spend on policing.

The answer: a lot. 

Oakland was found to spend the most percentage-wise — 41.2 percent of its general fund expenditures went to its police department.  Right on its tail was Chicago, with 38.6 percent of its general fund expenditures going to the CPD.

And if we’re talking cash?

Well, then New York City becomes the biggest spender, dropping $4.89 billion on its police department in 2017. Los Angeles was second, with $1.48 billion, and Chicago was third with $1.46 billion. Together, the top three cities will spend $7.83 billion this year.

And that number, massive as it is, is a drop in the bucket compared to how much the country spends as a whole on policing. Every year, according to the study's authors, the U.S. spends $100 billion on policing, and an additional $80 billion on incarceration.

$180 billion per year — that’s New Zealand’s GDP.

If cities are able to spend that much on police, surely social programs must get a lot too, right?

No, not at all.

When the authors turned their eyes to how much cities spend on things like parks, schools, and community development, they found that each and every one of the 12 cities spent less on these things than on policing.

Baltimore, for instance, set aside $480 million dollars in 2017 for its police department. Its public schools got about half that much, $265 million.

Chicago chose to spend 17.6 percent of its budget on its police force, and just 0.9 percent of its money on its Department of Family and Support Services, through which funds for afterschool programs, violence reduction, summer programs, early childhood education, and homeless services flow.

For every dollar Houston spends on its police department, it spends one cent on housing and community development.

The report’s authors see these sorts of ratios as indicting, writing, “For government, budgets are also moral documents. They are an articulation of what — and whom — our cities, counties, states and country deem worthy of investment.” 

They also write that the choices governments make in budgeting penalize some and reward others. Cities' “investment choices have devastated black and brown low-income communities who are most affected by both criminalization and systemic social divestment.”

To get some more perspective on the report and how and why local governments are spending so heavily on policing, we spoke with Jennifer Epps-Addison, network president and co-executive director of The Center for Popular Democracy. 

At the root of the problem, Epps-Addison said, is what American governments believe ought to be policed. “Folks need to understand that our governments are primarily policing poverty, mental health issues and drug addiction. Rather than spending their efforts preventing and solving violent crime, police officers are forced to pursue racist and lazy policing tactics like broken windows policing, stop and frisk and racial profiling.”

Epps-Addison told us that there is a better way: “Instead of criminalizing and caging black and brown people, we should be making the kinds of long-term investments that build true community safety and stability.”

Making those sorts of investments seems like common sense. But according to Epps-Addison, reallocating the money currently spent on policing isn’t as easy as it seems.

Although most citizens would presumably be willing to spend less on policing and more on their communities, there are a few people who don’t want to see that happen.

“People need to understand that our criminalization system is firmly rooted in economic exploitation and profit making. Criminalization and prisons are money makers for Wall Street, large private corporations, and multi-national companies like Starbucks, Victoria’s Secret and Whole Foods.”

Although some companies have caved to consumer pressure and stopped using prison labor, The Economist reports that prison labor is still worth over $1 billion per year, and that California’s inmates alone are expected to rake in $232 million in sales during 2017.

That’s a lot of money on the table.

Too, no other population in the United States will work for as little as $0.12 an hour.

The New York Times found in 2012 that even workers at the Foxconn facilities that make things like iPhones earn $2.50 an hour. 

Products produced by prisoners, then, cost virtually nothing to make, and those profiting from prison labor don’t want to give their returns up.

“Police … have been encouraged to seek high arrest levels for low level offenses in order to increase the economy of jailing and incarceration, destabilizing communities rather than making them safer,” Epps-Addison said. 

It’s not only businesspeople who want to make sure current policing practices don’t change, according to Epps-Addison, but politicians too. “The politics of fear, rooted in racism and white supremacy are effectively used to justify this profit-making enterprise in real and salient ways. The racialized 'tough on crime' political stance has been used as an electoral tactic on both sides of the aisle.”

Facing that sort of economic-governmental opposition, what is someone like you or I to do? 

Well, Epps-Addison has a few ideas.

The first thing is to change our thinking. She said that part of the problem “is our own imaginations.” We’ve been brainwashed, and need to wake up. “The idea that more police equals more safety has been drilled into our collective consciousness for the last three decades.”

Once we’ve adjusted our view of things, “citizens can join groups that are on the ground organizing to demand accountability from elected officials and can make their voices heard at public budget meetings and forums. Advocates can learn from examples both locally and internationally where participatory budgeting has been used to achieve more democratic and equitable outcomes.”

Participatory budgeting is a practice advocated by the study’s authors. And it’s just what it sounds like — it’s when normal people, people in the community, participate in deciding how their local budget will be spent.  

The report cites successful participatory budgeting initiatives in both North Carolina and New York, and urges citizens to demand increased control over their tax dollars.

Third, Epps-Addison said, “One concrete step folks can take if their city was not covered in this report is to organize a demand that their city council publicly release what percentage of the city general purpose revenue is dedicated to policing.”

In the long run, Epps-Addison said, “real freedom for our communities requires us not just to lower police spending, but to recapture those saving and invest them in opportunity and equity programs that reflect the true public safety priorities of the community.”

And seizing that freedom requires both thinking critically and making our voices heard.

“Communities of color are largely talking about wanting the same type of policing that many white and nearly every affluent community currently receives. We want the freedom to exist without being seen as suspect. When we have a mental health crisis, we want a mental health professional, not a police officer to show up. If someone we love is struggling with drug addiction, we want them to receive treatment and rehabilitation, not a jail sentence … We should look critically at where police are spending money (i.e. overtime, equipment, etc.) and figure out how we can trim down these bloated budgets and reinvest where it counts. We should be demanding increased transparency and accountability around police spending.”

The Center for Popular Democracy, Law for Black Lives and Black Youth Project 100’s report, Freedom To Thrive: Reimagining Safety & Security In Our Communities is available for download now.