Calls to defund the police gained momentum in 2020, and 2021 budget plans reveal that many Colorado cities have indeed made cuts in law enforcement spending. But very few of those reductions seem to be driven by a desire to reallocate resources away from policing and toward other social services.

Instead, smaller police budgets are merely a symptom of an overall cashflow problem caused by the COVID-19 economic downturn, says Brenden Beck, a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Denver, who specializes in criminology. “In general, recessions decrease police budgets,” he says, pointing to the 2008 housing crisis and ensuing recession, when most police departments in the United States faced cuts for several subsequent years as the economy slowly recovered.

Beck’s assertion is evident in Denver, where most city government departments faced cuts in an effort to make up the $190 million budget shortfall. The Denver Police Department (DPD) will see its budget reduced by 9.7 percent, from $254.2 million in 2020 to roughly $229 million in 2021. Yet Mayor Michael Hancock was adamant that the cuts were not the result of pressure from the defund-the-police movement. In a letter to City Council written during budget negotiations, he stressed that “reducing investments in public safety will not produce better safety outcomes for Denver’s community.”

DPD chief of police Paul Pazen says he recognizes the need to save money citywide, but echoes the mayor’s sentiment. “I think it’s short-sighted of anyone to think ‘defund the police’ is going to help a community,” Pazen says. “Cutting the police budget has a direct impact on our ability to answer 911 calls and investigate homicides, shootings, sex assaults, robberies, burglaries, car thefts, and more. A decrease in our budget means increases in crime.” (Beck notes that data around Pazen’s claim can be murky, especially because most violent and property crimes in the United States are never reported to the police.)

Nearly 10 percent of the Mile High City’s budget will go towards the DPD’s operating budget, and Councilmember Candi CdeBaca’s efforts to redirect tens of millions of police dollars toward other social supports like rental assistance were voted down by the Council. Still, those hoping to reallocate funds toward nonpolice emergency responses won a small victory with the Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) van, which sends a mental health clinician and paramedic to noncriminal 911 calls, such as mental health crises, drug overdoses, or welfare checks. The STAR van launched as a six-month pilot program in June, and has since responded to hundreds of calls without needing to call for police backup.

Despite overall budgeting shortfalls, Denver found an additional $3 million to spend on the STAR van in 2021, proof of the growing interest in policing alternatives, Beck says. “It’s still a really small drop in the bucket compared to the overall police budget,” he says. “But it’s certainly a good sign, and hopefully a sign that these trends will continue.”

Of course, powerful obstacles to reducing police funding in favor of social services remain. Police unions, such as the Denver Police Protective Association (PPA), wield impressive bargaining power: This year, Mayor Hancock’s office, City Council, and the Denver PPA struggled to agree on new contract terms for the police department, with City Council rejecting a contract in September that would have given police officers a 2.77 percent pay increase in 2022 (Mayor Hancock condemned the Council’s decision). An independent arbitrator had to break the deadlock—and the Denver PPA walked away with a contract giving officers two small raises in 2022 (DPD officers still face a pay freeze and no extra pay for working holidays in 2021; the city also will reduce its contributions to the retiree health trust).

Plus, certain policing reforms may ultimately require cities to spend more money on law enforcement. Bias training for officers is pricey (and in some cases unproven), and the gear police departments currently use to increase accountability, such as body cams, costs money. When Colorado passed sweeping police reform bill SB217 earlier this year, it required all officers in the state to wear body cameras. “Are these smaller departments going to be able to afford them for all their police officers? Are they going to be able to afford the docking stations in order to charge them?” asks Apryl Alexander, a member of Black Lives Matter 5280, an advocacy organization committed to building a violence-free Denver where Black people are valued and protected. “Even though we have this bill, I’m not sure what the implementation will look like until these jurisdictions can get federal or even state-level funding—in a time when we are cutting state budgets.”

Currently, “defund the police” is not a rallying cry that’s gotten widespread support. Polls show that a majority of respondents to four separate nationwide surveys in June (conducted by the Economist/YouGov, Morning Consult/Politico, ABC News/Ipsos, and Reuters/Ipsos) oppose the defunding movement, even if they like some of the more concrete policies behind the slogan. Still, Beck points out that the idea is fairly new for many Americans. Movements like these typically require time—calls for decarceration (reducing prison populations) were anathema when they first surfaced two decades ago, Beck says, but now support for prison reform is more popular. “I don’t have a crystal ball, but I think police reform will undergo a similar trajectory,” he says. “A movement toward more public health and social service responses to violence will replace the more criminal justice responses we’ve been trying for about 50 years now.”

Angela Ufheil
Angela Ufheil
Angela Ufheil is a Denver-based journalist and 5280's former digital senior associate editor.