Rethinking Police Budgeting

Financial Foundations for Thriving Communities

The need for a new look at police and public safety has wide popular support. However, the path forward is not clear. A budget process must be guided by rules for how decisions will be made and how decisions will translate into action. The traditional budgeting process will not be up to the task of dealing with the community’s demands for public safety reforms and a local government’s revenue shortfalls. With GFOA's Financial Foundations Framework, we can explore new rules for budgeting that differ from the traditional budget process’s norms. These new rules are better suited to the problems local governments are dealing with.


1. Historical precedent should not determine future spending. Focus on how to cost-effectively achieve community goals.

2. Departments and divisions are not the best decision unit. Bureaucratic units are useful for day-to-day management, but have limitations as the unit of analysis for budgeting.

3. Think outside of department "silos" and look for multidisciplinary solutions. Use the budget as a forum to bring other perspectives to the issues that make up public safety work.

4. Give prevention a chance. Measures of whether the community is better off than it was before might open the door to thinking about how to prevent the problems.

5. Identify what works. Ask how the requested funding achieves the public safety vision and require data and analysis to support funding.

6. Look for smart, strategic ways to save money. The money to enhance public safety capabilities can come from reallocating funds from things local government can stop doing or start doing differently.

7. Don't budget "either/or," budget "both/and." The budget should not be framed as a competition between two opposing views where only one can win.

Local governments can use each pillar of the Financial Foundations Framework to address the budget for police and public safety. GFOA also has prepared a set of questions and conversation starters to help evaluate your local government’s approach. Keep in mind that the five pillars of the Financial Foundations framework are not sequential. Instead, they interact with and support each other. This means that you might need to build more than one pillar at the same time. For example, there may be an impediment to trust and open communication (Pillar 2) that needs to be addressed before people are ready to talk about a long-term vision (Pillar 1) or a budget (Pillar 4). Also, fair treatment (Pillar 5) needs to be present during the entire planning and budgeting process—it cannot be accounted for just at the end. Finally, policing is a multifaceted, complex issue. Though the budget is an important perspective, it is just one perspective and true solutions will need to involve diverse perspectives and a collaborative approach (Pillar 3).

The long-term vision must define police and public safety issues that the local government and public will work together to address

The vision provides overarching guidance for the budget, which is perhaps the longest lever governments have to make steady and meaningful progress toward the vision. A long-term vision defines desire for a better future:

  • A shared public safety vision brings people together and creates cohesion
  • Encourages thinking long-term and broadly about police and public safety
  • Defines goals and measures to support better budgeting for public safety services

Trust is essential if we are to reach a balanced budget that provides a safe community for everyone.

Trust is essential if we are to reach a balanced budget that provides a safe community for everyone. A healthy financial decision-making system requires trust and open communication among officials within government and between local government and citizens. The key for people to work together on a vision and budget requires governments:

  • Show concern by listening to the public.
  • Show that officials hold similar values to the public
  • Allow the public to scrutinize government’s public safety work
  • Help the public understand the decision-making process

The power of the police to fulfill their duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions, and behaviors and on their ability to maintain public respect

Making hard choices requires bringing people together. Also, making public engagement an institution can remove much of the difficulty that arises if the public is only engaged at irregular intervals and with inconsistent methods. Also, regularly engaging the public helps local government leaders to keep in tune with the public’s perspective and avoid unpleasant surprises. It also demonstrates to the public that local officials have an ongoing interest in learning what matters most.

  • Bring together the public, police, and elected officials
  • Provide a forum for the public to voice concerns with day-to-day policing
  • Establish a common set of facts as the basis for conversation
  • Have the conversation

If people feel they have been fairly treated, then they are often willing to accept outcomes other than their preferred outcome.

When budgeting for police, emotions can run high. Perhaps the biggest risk of emotions getting out of control comes from perceptions of unfair treatment. If people feel unfairly treated by a decision, not only are they likely to reject the decision, but they may also reject the entire system used to reach that decision. Create a fair process and work to achieve fair results.

  • Ensure decisions are objective and transparent
  • People should be given a voice and treated with dignity
  • Recognize that different constituencies have different needs and experience with the public safety system
  • Budgeting outcomes ought to reflect the community served