Local governments need to rethink police budgeting. Calls to “defund the police” have gotten a lot of attention in the news and social media. However, surveys show that although there is widespread agreement that local governments need to take a fresh look at how policing is conducted, there is not widespread agreement that reducing police funding is necessarily the way forward. Nor is there any clear agreement on what the best way forward is.1

This means local governments will need a way to reach good decisions about police budgeting. However, the traditional local government budgeting system (i.e., take last year’s budget and make changes around the margins) is not up to the task for several reasons. One of the most important is that the traditional approach is based on historical precedent. It tends to freeze past practices in place. It does not provide a way to thoughtfully reexamine what is working well and what isn’t and then make changes accordingly.

A budget process must be guided by rules for how decisions will be made and how those decisions will translate into action. The purpose of this article is to explore seven new rules for police budgeting that differ from the traditional budget process’s written and unwritten rules. City managers can use these rules to guide a conversation with their budget officer about how the budget process can be redesigned to better suit the questions that local governments now face. These rules come from a report produced by the Government Finance Officers Association and Results for America, “Time for Change: A Practical Approach to Rethinking Police Budgeting.” This report also discusses other aspects of making good decisions on police budgeting, such as engaging the public, building trust between participants in the budgeting process, and formulating a long-term vision and goals for police and public safety.

Rule #1: Historical precedent should not determine future spending. Instead, focus on how to cost-effectively achieve community goals.

Traditionally, last year’s budget is the basis for next year’s budget. Over the years, patterns of spending build up and may no longer be relevant to the community’s needs or may no longer be affordable. The new rule is to direct spending to programs that achieve the community’s public safety goals at an affordable cost.

It will be easier to follow this rule if there is a long-term vision and plan for public safety. The long-term vision defines the public safety goals. The budget directs money to activities that achieve these goals. New approaches to public safety will take time to plan and implement. Making the connection between a long-term vision and the budget allows for deliberate and steady progress.

Conversation Starter: Is your government willing to give up historical precedent as the primary determinant of future spending? Are you willing and able to direct spending to programs that best achieve the community’s public safety goals at an affordable cost?

Rule #2: Departments and divisions are not the best decision unit for budgeting. Instead, more granularity is needed.