When Conservatives Called To Freeze Police BudgetsRoundup
tags: Police, urban history, municipal budgets
David Helps is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. His research and teaching focus on US political and urban history, immigration, and the carceral state in a transnational context.
In 1984, Hollywood resident Jerry Martz wrote the Los Angeles Times to observe a political impasse. With the fear of crime reaching a crescendo, City Council faced calls to enlarge the Los Angeles Police Department to 8,500 officers, which Chief Daryl Gates sloganized as the “8500 Plan.” Martz’s support for police expansion ran up against his fiscal conservatism. Nevertheless, he offered a sardonic solution: “Has anyone considered having the criminals pay for these expenses?” Only then would “the financial burden” not fall “solely on the law-abiding taxpayers.” With its many Jerry Martzes, Los Angeles rejected tax increases to fund the police department on three separate ballots over the course of the 1980s. “The people have spoken,” one voter wrote to Mayor Tom Bradley. “Government is getting no more money.”
Jerry Martz could never have predicted that calls to defund the police would gain nationwide attention in 2020. While he would have dismissed abolitionist demands to transform public safety, his position reveals a moment when the loudest opposition to swollen police budgets came from fiscal conservatives. As demonstrated in the strange career of James Q. Wilson—whose theory of “broken-windows” policing drew its explanatory power from a single study by a liberal criminologist, though Wilson himself was an ardent libertarian—fiscal austerity and police power have made for strange bedfellows. For a brief moment between the “taxpayer revolt” and the all-out war on crack cocaine users, arguably the most powerful police department in the country was not safe from austerity. Surfacing the contradictions of law-and-order politics forces historians to disentangle police power and police spending, in ways that help explain the unprecedented moment we find ourselves in. As Black-led campaigns to defund police and invest in criminalized communities have entered the mainstream, the politics of “law and order” and fiscal conservatism appear the most fragile they’ve been since the 1970s. By understanding conservative activism to freeze police budgets, and particularly its punitive outcomes, historians can amplify grassroots demands that containing police spending must also mean reducing police power and investing in criminalized communities.
Cities across the United States underwent major budgetary crises during the 1970s, enabling financiers and politicians to impose restructuring, as urban historians like Kim Phillips-Fein and Suleiman Osman have shown. In California, however, neoliberals responded to a grassroots (but not representative) tax revolt. In 1978, voters passed Proposition 13, which prohibited cities from taxing residential property above one percent of market value. From then on, new municipal taxes would need to be approved by two-thirds of voters. Overnight, Los Angeles lost access to $234 million—roughly a quarter of its total revenue. The city council quickly passed an emergency budget with across-the-board cuts—including an eleven percent reduction in police staffing. In a speech at a conference for the nation’s mayors in July 1980, Bradley warned that cities were now “living on a fixed income” and “under orders to operate within a new set of fiscal restraints.”
Bradley interpreted the triumph of Prop 13 as a call for leaner government, but many of its supporters insisted that smaller revenues should not mean reduced services. Eighty-five percent of Californians believed government services could be maintained as they were, if only government was “made more efficient.” If cuts had to be made, large majorities felt they should target welfare programs or the city payroll. These budget preferences followed the belief that the civil rights and due-process revolutions had empowered criminals and welfare cheats at the expense of law-abiding white taxpayers. A few months after the proposition’s passage, a flyer circulated alleging that crime was up fourteen percent in affluent West LA because the LAPD failed to respond to 250,000 calls. While the Mayor’s office struggled to find where these specious statistics came from, others saw the proof in every grisly newspaper headline. “How many more people have to be murdered or mangled in the City of Los Angeles?” one letter-writer demanded to know.
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