Spending on Police by State


Amid the outcry over George Floyd’s death and subsequent protests, some people are calling for defunding the police. Zeroing out the police doesn’t make any sense, but citizens should certainly be looking at issues of police mismanagement, hiring practices, labor union protections, and accountability.

Citizens should also ask questions about police budgets. The Census Bureau reports that in 2017 state and local governments spent $115 billion on police, which represented 3.1 percent of overall state and local government spending that year.

Police spending varies substantially by state, as shown in the chart below based on the Census data. The U.S. average is $352 per capita. I don’t know what the proper level of spending is, and obviously the states vary in terms of crime rates, cost of living, and other factors.

Spending ranged from $186 per capita in Kentucky to $530 per capita in New York. The ranking of many states is what one would expect. New York is a big spender on just about every government function. Alaska has large distances and high costs. Indiana has a fairly well‐​run government with relatively low costs.

Florida’s high spending on police is a surprise given that most government activities in that state are relatively low cost. Marylanders should be asking why their police spending is 49 percent higher than spending in Virginia ($443 vs. $298 per capita). Nevada’s high police spending is also surprising, given that Nevada has a relatively inexpensive government overall.

Chris Edwards is the director of tax policy studies at the CATO Institute and editor of www.DownsizingGovernment.org. He is a top expert on federal and state tax and budget issues. Before joining Cato, Edwards was a senior economist on the congressional Joint Economic Committee, a manager with PricewaterhouseCoopers, and an economist with the Tax Foundation.

Used with permission. Cato Institute / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0