Defund the police: how a protest slogan triggered a policy debate

“People will look back at this year and say this was a real turning point,” said Alexander Weiss, a consultant who has advised police departments in Chicago and New Orleans, in reference to police accountability.

Read the entire article that reports on how a single protest slogan changed everything, by Claire Bushey.

Alexander Weiss Consulting presents results of organizational analysis for the Shorewood Wisconsin Police Department

On November 19 Alex Weiss provided a briefing for the board of trustees and the community in Shorewood. You can read the final draft report here.

Alex Weiss interviewed by National Public Radio about Chicago Police Violence Reduction Initiative.

Officers did seize some guns and make some arrests, but were mostly busy writing tickets. CPD says its latest anti-violence program will be different.

“Weiss says, ultimately the trick with specialized units is to keep them focused “and that you make sure that what they do is consistent with the overall crime-control mission.” – Posted on By Elliott Ramos 

Alex Weiss appointed to teach at Ohio State University

Alex Weiss chosen to teach for the Management Advancement for the Public Service at the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at Ohio State University.

Alexander Weiss Consulting leads in Organizational Study for the Shorewood Wisconsin Police Department

Alexander Weiss Consulting chosen to conduct an organizational study for the Shorewood Wisconsin Police Department, a suburb of Milwaukee.

Alexander Weiss Consulting chosen to conduct a staffing study for the Albuquerque Police Department.

Albuquerque is the largest city in New Mexico and the department has a sworn staff of about 1000 officers.

Commentary: How to ‘defund’ the police — real strategies to reduce costs safely


The idea of “defunding” the police has sparked a great deal of discussion in recent weeks. Proponents of this approach have laid out two justifications.


One group suggests that the police lack legitimacy, and thus they should be dissolved so that a new public safety model can emerge. It may take some time to determine what that model looks like in practice. The other approach suggests that funds currently allocated to policing would be better served if they were devoted to public health, mental health, education and housing. Some communities, including Boston, Los Angeles and New York, already have taken steps to accomplish this transfer of funds, although policymakers do not as yet have a complete understanding of the costs of providing these types of services on a 24/7 basis.

While both of these strategies can help to instruct our conversation about the future of policing, I would like to focus on the second model. That is, I want to discuss how reduced funding for the police might affect performance.

For several years I have studied police staffing and deployment in many communities. Included in this group are several agencies operating under a “consent decree,” including New Orleans, Baltimore, Chicago, Albuquerque, N.M., and the Puerto Rico Police Bureau.

While police organizations vary considerably in size and structure, they share some common characteristics. First, almost everyone in these organizations believes that they needed more police officers. Second, most officers believe that during their shift they “go from call to call,” and have no time for community engagement. However, when we examine data on calls for service, we often find that there are enough officers to meet performance objectives, particularly if more effectively deployed, and that many officers, instead of spending all shift handling calls for service, actually have significant amounts of uncommitted time.
Our work suggests there are a number of things that law enforcement agencies can do to be more efficient, and even reduce the number of sworn officers — the largest cost of the police budget. Here are five that have great potential.
1. Communities should take a hard look at minimum staffing levels. Most police departments maintain some type of minimum staffing level. That is, they identify the minimum number of officers who must be on duty on a shift or at a given post. Occasionally, this staffing level is based on an analysis of the agency workload, but more often it is tied to the number of posts, or what the agency and its officers feel is appropriate. Sometimes the minimum staffing level is specified in a union contract.
There are two problems associated with minimum levels. First, we often find that the staffing level does not match the workload. For example, we often see the same number of officers working at 4 p.m. is the same that is working at 4 a.m., even though the workload in the afternoon could be four or five times greater. Second, when the number of officers on duty falls below the minimum, the agency will often hire off-duty officers to fill the spots on overtime. This leads to significant costs, officers who may be patrolling in unfamiliar areas and officers who may be working too many hours. In 2019, for example, Boston spent nearly $70 million on police overtime.
2. Agencies should critically examine officer work schedules. A number of years ago, police agencies began to implement so-called 4/10 plan work schedules. In these schedules, officers work four 10-hour days and have three days off. Although these schedules are popular, in most applications they require the agency to employ 20% more officers than if the officers worked eight- or 12-hour shifts.


3. Police agencies should make greater use of non-sworn professional staff. Many agencies still use sworn police officers to do the work that could and should be done by non-sworn staff, or that could be outsourced. For example, the Chicago Police Department uses sworn police officers to gather physical evidence at crime scenes, even though many other departments use non-sworn staff for these tasks. Non-sworn staff are often better equipped for this type of work (many have degrees in forensic science), and the cost for these members is typically less than that of a sworn officer.

4. Police agencies should focus on reducing demand for services. Police departments respond to many types of calls that could be handled in other ways. For example, police departments devote significant resources to answering burglar alarms, the vast majority of which are false. Some agencies have an approach to alarms called “verified response,” in which the initial response is done by the alarm company and not the police. Communities adopting verified response have seen significant reductions in demand.

5. Departments should greatly reduce the use of two-officer patrol cars. Some agencies continue to make extensive use of two-officer patrol cars. While the safety effects of that approach are subject to debate, the extra cost is not. While a fraction of police calls for service require that two officers respond, that percentage rarely exceeds 50%. More often it is the case that this approach results in two officers being assigned to a call that only requires one.

It is important to point out that even before the events in Minneapolis, most communities were facing significant fiscal challenges as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. There likely would have been large cuts in funding for public safety, and thus this may be an important time to think critically about how we want to keep our communities safe and what it will cost.

In the days ahead, many units of government will ask how many police officers are required to ensure public safety. Put another way, what number of officers would help an agency most cost-effectively meet the demands placed on it? This is a fundamentally different question from how many officers does a community want or can a community support. Yet answering the need question effectively frames a discussion about want and affordability.

Alexander Weiss is the former director of the Center for Public Safety at Northwestern University. He is the author (with Jeremy Wilson) of “Performance-Based Approach to Police Staffing and Allocation,” published by the Office of Community Oriented Police Services, United States Department of Justice.

Forbes turns to police staffing expert, Alexander Weiss, to discuss Why Defunding May Be Inevitable.

The only time in recent history police departments saw significant layoffs was during the Great Recession, when as many as 15,000 officer positions were lost as a result of the downturn. “Most people predicted Armageddon,” Weiss says, “but it didn’t happen…life went on.”

Boston Globe Article asked Alexander Weiss for his expert opinion on the subject of defunding the police.

“For a number of people, the institution of police is simply not legitimate. We’ve been talking about reform for all these years and nothing seems to happen,” said Alexander Weiss, an expert on police staffing.

The Marshall Project asks Alexander Weiss to provide insight as an expert in police staffing

Support For Defunding The Police Department Is Growing. Here’s Why It’s Not A Silver Bullet.

By Simone Weichselbaum and Nicole Lewis, June 06, 2020, The Marshall Project 

Past budget cuts have had unintended consequences. Now, proponents say it’s time to fundamentally reimagine the role of the police.

Minneapolis city council members made an historic pledge over the weekend when they vowed to dismantle the local police department and shift money to community-based strategies. The pledge to develop a new system of public safety— supported by a veto-proof majority — follows weeks of protests across the country in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. Officials in other cities, including New York and Los Angeles, have also said they would cut police budgets, though neither has echoed Minneapolis city council members’s statement that the city’s police department is beyond reform.

Once a radical notion, the push to defund the police is gaining ground. Across the country, organizerscelebrities,and former city officials are calling on lawmakers to reimagine the role of police in public safety.

Proponents of taking money away from cops say cities cannot simply reform their way out of the current policing crisis. And in the wake of the pandemic, some have highlighted a deadly disparity: many cities spend millions more on law enforcement than they do on most other services, including public health.

Opponents say it is too soon to abandon the progress police departments have made to curb officer violence and improve their relationships in communities of color. Some point to the effects of the 2008 recession, where cities cut police funding with no real plan, with unintended consequences, including increasing complaints over use of force.

But what do people mean by defunding the police? It doesn’t just mean slashing budgets. One of the main ideas is that police departments are often the only agency to respond to problems — even if the problems are not criminal in nature. Police handle mental health crises. They enforce traffic laws. They patrol public school hallways and contract with colleges and universities. In many small towns, police answer 911 calls about barking dogs and loud parties. Advocates of defunding the police argue that many of these functions would be better left to other professionals, such as social workers.

Decades of over-policing in black and brown neighborhoods has led to black and brown people being disproportionately victims of police violence and overrepresented in prisons. A better approach, proponents of defunding the police argue, redirects law-enforcement funding to social services programs such as public housing, early childhood education and healthcare. By equitably distributing resources, they say, the need for police could be dramatically reduced.

Molly Glasgow, a volunteer with MPD150, a grassroots initiative to abolish the Minneapolis Police Department, said decades of previous reform efforts have not broken a cycle of violence followed by unrest and promises of improvement that have failed.

“What we are asking is that we step out of that cycle,” Glasgow said. “When we say dismantle: Yes, we mean divest and defund, but also invest in community programs and initiatives that are actually supporting people’s needs.”

Past attempts to cut police spending or alter police policies offer cautionary tales of how some efforts backfire, and entrenched aggressive tactics and racially discriminatory attitudes remain. Previous Marshall Project investigations into cases of attempted police reform in cities like Memphis and Chicago found that cutting law enforcement budgets did not reduce police violence or produce healthier relationships with the neighborhoods they patrol.

After 2008, cities reduced police spending as the Great Recession depleted their coffers. Departments that once had record numbers of cops, bankrolled by a Clinton-era federal hiring grant, were forced to downsize. (The single largest line item in most police budgets is personnel.)

As dollars dried up, police manpower plummeted, more crimes went unsolved, community outreach dwindled, and the cops that were left were forced to work high amounts of overtime.

In Memphis, complaints about use of force rose as overtime costs nearly doubled from 2015, reaching $27 million two years later. Wait times for 911 calls rose. City officials then pressed a nonprofit to raise money in secret to pay for police bonuses without public input.

Other police reforms fell short. To bolster community trust in police, cities like Chicago turned to academics from top-tier universities to develop training using the latest buzzwords, such as “implicit bias” and “procedural justice.” But the programs did not always take hold —and one Chicago cop sued the city for inadequate training after he accidently shot and killed a African-American grandmother despite the new classes.

Court-ordered consent decrees, under which the federal government essentially acted as watchdogs of a local police force, often cost millions of dollars for cities to implement. And in some cases, there were abuses: A 2015 Marshall Project investigation into the failures of federal oversight found that a Detroit monitor had billed the city as much as $193,680.55 a month, and had an affair with the then mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Detroit is considered one of the most violent cities in the nation, according to FBI figures.

There are fiscal incentives for defunding, too. Police departments are often one of the largest slices of the city budgets. Nearly 7 percent of the city budget in New York, for example, goes to police; in Los Angeles, it’s 16 percent. In Minneapolis the police account for roughly 15 percent of the city’s $1.3 billion budget.

But the current debate over defunding the police is different than the challenges following the Great Recession, said Alexander Weiss, an expert on police staffing. That financial crisis forced police departments to scale back out of necessity. The current defunding debate asks how officials can redirect money from law enforcement and move into social services.

“If you have neighborhoods where there is little hope for future success, that’s a real problem, and police officers face that every day,” said Weiss, who has instructed police leaders in Chicago, Albuquerque and New Orleans on how to best deploy their cops. “What people are saying is that it doesn’t make sense to invest all this money in policing when there are significant deficits in these neighborhoods.”

Some efforts to reimagine how police departments operate have worked. In 2011, the Camden Police Department in New Jersey became the first law enforcement agency in recent memory to implode as the state struggled to pay for officers. Police officials blamed the four police unions then operating in the city for having too much power, driving up overtime costs and dictating how patrol cops were used.

A county police department emerged tied to only one police union, which local leaders say is why Camden now has a national reputation as a place where residents and cops get along. “We get a lot of information from residents now to help us fight crime and help us solve crimes,” said Louis Cappelli, Jr., the county executive.

Some cities are cutting budgets without, it seems, plans to reimagine the police force. In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti pledged to trim $150 million from the LAPD’s budget in the coming fiscal year. New York City’s mayor said Sunday that he would consider cuts to the police department’s nearly $6 billion annual budget after the city’s top fiscal advocate outlined how to trim 5 percent in police spending per year.

“It wasn’t just enough to say ‘defund,’” said the city’s comptroller, Scott M. Stringer. “The real question was ‘How? And by how much’?”

Still, some worry the push to defund the police is rash. James McCabe, a former commander in the New York Police Department who now is a consultant for scores of departments, says changing the culture of a police force takes time. Training in many departments has only just begun, and it’s too soon to tell if it is working, McCabe said.

“I am a proponent of good government and efficiency and not overspending on something that you shouldn’t,” McCabe said. “But it might be a little bit of a knee-jerk reaction right now to just unilaterally defund the police because you don’t like something that happened.”

“The more pressure put on police from without,” he said, “the more they will resist that change from within.”

Minneapolis is already making change— it has removed police from its public school system. The next step, advocates say, is to stop police from responding to calls for emergency medical services.

Supporters of defunding the police, such as Glasgow, say residents and businesses need to embrace a philosophical shift when it comes to the role of cops in their lives. Property can be replaced, she says, but human lives cannot. And too often, the police have killed city residents while responding to minor crimes.

“I encourage people, even at this point, to retrain themselves on reflexively calling or suggesting calling the police,” she said. “It’s been ingrained in us and what we’ve been trained to do, but we need to look for alternatives — even as they are being developed.”

Nonprofit journalism about criminal justice