Ron DeSantis’ misleading claim about crime, police funding | PolitiFact

Crime went up in the selected time periods, but there’s no proof that it happened as a direct result of budget cuts.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, center, speaks during a news conference at West Miami Middle School in Miami on Tuesday, May 4, 2021. DeSantis signed bills revamping Florida's literacy and early childhood learning. (Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald via AP)
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, center, speaks during a news conference at West Miami Middle School in Miami on Tuesday, May 4, 2021. DeSantis signed bills revamping Florida's literacy and early childhood learning. (Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald via AP) [ MATIAS J. OCNER | AP ]
Published May 5, 2021

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis lauded a new state law he championed as “the strongest anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement piece of legislation in the country.”

The new law increased the criminal penalties for offenses committed “in furtherance of a riot or an aggravated riot.” It also allows state attorneys or city council members to appeal budget proposals that seek to reduce police operating budgets to the state’s Administration Commission. The commission, made up of the governor and Cabinet, has the final say.

“This bill actually prevents against local governments defunding law enforcement,” DeSantis said after signing the bill April 19. “We’ll be able to stop it at the state level. And if you look at some of these places that have done this, they’ve already seen crime go up.”

DeSantis’ office pointed to news reports about increased crime in six places: New York City, Los Angeles, Austin, Washington, D.C., Minneapolis and Philadelphia. The types of crimes and time periods used to measure those increases varied per city.

Those cities did reduce or redistribute some police funding as they grappled with the coronavirus pandemic and activists’ calls to spend less on policing and more on mental health services and anti-crime programs.

However, criminologists disputed DeSantis’ link between budget cuts and worsened crime.

Experts said the limited data and selective time frames disregard key points:

  • Murder and gun violence were already up in 2020, before cities changed their budgets. (Some of the six cities are still in the process of shifting money from the police.)
  • Cities that did not cut police budgets also saw murder go up in 2020.

“These comparisons of crime increases with reductions in police budget or personnel are strictly anecdotal. In the first instance, they should be compared with crime changes in cities that have not altered policing,” said Richard Rosenfeld, a University of Missouri, St. Louis expert on crime trends. “Moreover, they are at best correlations between crime changes and policing. They say nothing about whether or how the changes to policing caused the crime changes.”

A proper evaluation of budget changes and their impact on crime should control for multiple factors that influence criminal activity, said Charis E. Kubrin, a criminologist at the University of California, Irvine. Those factors include poverty, joblessness, drugs, gangs, guns, housing insecurity and demographic shifts, she said.

‘Defund the police’ and changes to cities’ budgets

After George Floyd’s killing by a police officer in May 2020, activists protesting racial discrimination and excessive use of force by police called on cities to “defund the police.” While some protesters want to eliminate police departments entirely, others want to revisit the functions of police departments and reroute some police funding toward other services.

The six cities flagged by DeSantis did not abolish police departments or cancel their budgets. But they approved less funding for police departments for fiscal 2021. Some responded by transferring police duties to other city departments, eliminating funding earmarked for overtime pay, imposed hiring freezes, among other measures.

The cities made budget changes to fiscal years that started as early as July 1, 2020, and as late as Jan. 1, 2021.

PolitiFact reached out to each of the six cities to learn more about their budget changes and how significant they were in relation to the overall police budget. We heard back from most, but got limited information.

  • In Philadelphia, a $33 million cut to the police budget represents about 4.5% of the department’s adopted general fund budget of $727 million.
  • New York City officials last year said they agreed to remove $1 billion from the police department’s spending. (The Citizens Budget Commission, a watchdog group, said the net reduction to the police budget so far has been about $477 million.) The department’s total budget for 2021 was $10.2 billion.
  • Los Angeles cut $150 million from the police operating budget. The department’s 2021 budget is more than $1.7 billion.
  • Minneapolis officials in December said they shifted $7.8 million from the proposed police budget to other city departments. Overall, the city approved $164 million for the police department. (The city’s fiscal year runs concurrently with the calendar year.)
  • The Austin American-Statesman reported on a $150 million cut to the police budget, which represents about one-third of the police budget. But city spokesperson Jaquarry Wilson disputed the characterization of funds being cut, saying $121.7 million “was simply moved into two transition funds” while city staff determines which services can be offered by other city departments. Another $31.5 million was reinvested in other community safety initiatives in other departments, Wilson said.

National spikes to consider

DeSantis’ claim did not take into consideration how crime manifested nationally in 2020.

Many cities saw spikes in homicides in 2020, regardless of changes to their police budgets.

Crime increases are likely the result of the “social disorganization” caused by the coronavirus pandemic, said Samuel Walker, an emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Social disorganization involves a weakening of the basic bonds of social control, such as good employment and stable families.

Nationwide, murder went up every quarter of 2020 compared with the respective quarters in 2019, according to preliminary FBI data.

The number of murder and nonnegligent manslaughter offenses increased 14.8% nationwide in the first half of 2020 compared with the same period in 2019, according to preliminary data reported to the FBI by more than 12,000 U.S. law enforcement agencies.

At the same time, the FBI said there were overall declines in the number of violent crimes and property crimes.

“The complicated drivers of 2020′s large murder increase were clearly already well established before budget cuts for 2021 were passed,” said Jeff Asher, a crime analyst and co-founder of consulting firm AH Datalytics.

Some of the local news reports offered by DeSantis’ office also compared homicides in 2021 with 2020. One report focused on New York City murders over the first 10 days of 2021 versus the first 10 days of 2020; another looked at Philadelphia homicides from the beginning of 2021 through mid-March, compared with the same period in 2020.

Short-term homicide data can be “notoriously unreliable,” said Michael Campbell, a criminologist at the University of Denver. Homicides are relatively rare compared with other crimes, leading to large fluctuations in the homicide rates.

“However, everything points to a broad uptick in homicide, domestic violence, gun crimes and other serious offenses,” Campbell said. “Things are bad everywhere and it’s easy to point at these big cities but it’s impossible to determine any clear relationship and I’d be surprised if one ever emerges.”

Cuts in police funding don’t automatically mean the department will make a decision that puts public safety at risk.

When police departments have a reduced budget, they try to make adjustments that spare services for citizens or affect their perception of safety, said Kevin Robinson, a lecturer at Arizona State University’s School of Criminology & Criminal Justice.

Departments, for example, could opt to replace a patrol vehicle every five years instead of four, said Robinson, who served in the Phoenix Police Department for nearly 40 years.

Other cities, also experiencing homicide spike, increased police funding for 2021

Bloomberg CityLab analyzed the 2021 police budgets of the 50 largest U.S. cities in January. On the whole, the cities’ police budgets were reduced by 5.2 percent. But spending on police as a share of general expenditures rose slightly to 13.7 percent.

At least 24 cities increased police funding for 2021, Tampa among them, Bloomberg reported. Tampa city officials in September voted to increase the police department’s budget by $13 million for fiscal 2021, to $176 million.

The Tampa Bay Times around mid-November reported that Tampa, like other cities nationwide, saw an uptick in murders in 2020 compared with 2019.

Our ruling

DeSantis said, “If you look at some of these places that (cut police funding), they’ve already seen crime go up.”

An element of truth in DeSantis’ claim is that crime went up in six major cities. But he said it was because of budget cuts, when murder and gun violence were already trending up in 2020, before cities changed their budgets.

None of the budget changes have been in place for a whole year, so it’s too early to tell the extent of their impact on crime, if any. A proper assessment would control for many factors that influence criminal activity, experts said.

We rate DeSantis’ claim Mostly False.