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Defund the Renton Police?

The talk of the town is “defund the police”, both for and against, and Renton Progress wants to take a deep dive into the City of Renton’s data and see what we can find, and who, if any, the elusive defund candidates are.

Have we defunded the police?

Let’s start by undercutting the fear centered in this controversial topic. There is not enough of the political makeup in the city council to enact reforms dramatic enough to significantly reduce the police budget or criminal justice policies, and the city itself is limited in its abilities to source revenue and place funding. Furthermore, the city administration’s highest elected leader, Mayor Armondo Pavone, received and promoted his police union endorsements as a candidate; he is also the son of a retired officer. The city CAO, the highest appointed position in the administration, is Renton’s former police chief, Ed VanValey. There is minimal concern that the Renton Police Department will face any resistance from either the council or the city administration without dramatic changes.

This fear is driven partly by a national rise in crime which has caused some voters to demand more police funding, believing more officers could reduce the local impacts. This issue has become a facet of the city’s elections. With the US Census, City of Renton budget, and other city resources I have put together a Criminal Justice Data Dashboard. The dashboard alongside this article will help illustrate figures behind crime, social services, and police spending in Renton.

A graph showing blue columns for Renton police budget adjusted for inflation in 2021 dollars and a red area line show year by year even growth between census counts.
Year by year City of Renton police spending adjusted into 2021 dollars with even growth between US Census reports.

No one can deny that police spending has grown considerably since the late 80s, but we also have to consider other factors like cost of living and modernized equipment. The above graph adjusts the 1988-2022 spending into 2021 dollars to account for inflation, additionally it presents even growth between US Census reports to help give more realistic figures, e.g. per capita spending. Year over year since 1988 the city has given the police more spending money than the previous year in all but three years (2010, 2012, 2021). However, much of the 90s increases were outpaced by inflation when it is accounted for.

Faint red bars show even population growth between US Census reports years 1988-2022, a blue line shows police spending per capita while a green line shows the same adjusted into 2021 dollars.
Year by year City of Renton police spending per capita and police spending per capita adjusted to 2021 dollars. Population projection with even growth between US census reports shown behind.

The blue line in this graph represents the amount police spend per resident, the green line represents similar figures but adjusted for inflation into 2021 dollars. When this is accounted for, we see that the spending per resident went down as new residents continued moving in while spending remained relatively the same. In 1988 spending per capita would be around $335, by 2005 the spending would bottom out at nearly $265. Today the budget accounts for almost $400 spending per capita, over $100 more per capita from 2005, and a $60 increase from 1988.

We can’t ascertain too much from a $60-$100 per capita increase, perhaps it is worth it. Equipment has improved, there are many more mandated trainings for officers, and the region is known for its expensive cost of living. However, between 1988 and 2020 the police budget didn’t just grow per capita, it also has become a significant piece of the pie in the general budget. Between 1988 to 2005 the police budget accounted for just over 20% of the general funds, then between 2005 and 2022 it jumps and today accounts for nearly 40% of the general budget, sometimes more.

Green bars show the police budget year over year while a blue area line shows the same figured adjusted into 2021 dollars. Three bars in the years 2016-2018 are highlighted for significant administrative changes.
Year over year change in the police budget as a percentage of the general budget alongside the dollars each year and another line adjusting those numbers to 2021 dollars.

One significant factor for this increase was the creation of the Renton Regional Fire Authority (RRFA), approved by voters in 2016. This is also reflected in the City of Renton’s staff reporting, where fire services dropped to 0 after the formation of the RRFA. When comparing the police staff to the total staff, we can see between 2016-2017 that the total staff drops and police account for a higher portion of the entire city staff. Overall, Renton Police Department stays floating around 160 employees after the year 2007.

RPD as a % of staff between 1988-2022. Shows total FTEs, fire FTEs, and RPD FTEs.

Will more funding result in more police?

Police funding has gone up both nominally and increased in proportion to the general fund. Police FTEs also appear to plateau, meaning more spending hasn’t inherently equated to more police officers. Starting around 2011 the number of officers hovers around the same area, but spending per police staff increases. In the year 2000, spending is around $160,000 per police FTE (adjusted for inflation) and by 2015 it hits $240,000 per police staff. In 2020 it accounts for nearly $270,000 per FTE.

1988-2022 spending per police officer.

The costs for police officers are high at this time. Low morale due to national issues centered around policing combined with increased responsibilities as accountability measures are demanded has resulted in stagnating police forces that some city’s say are difficult to maintain. To compete with these conditions, the City of Renton has pushed for higher bonuses, doubling them this year. Renton Police Department also provides their officers a take-home vehicle as a perk, but one which has become commonplace in the region since its adoption.

For voters eager to see an increased police force, we might illustrate that without dramatic funding increases, more spending won’t inherently lead to more staff. Even at the spending per staff we see today, more officers are difficult for RPD to come by, and we should not resent this for at least one good reason, vetting. Voters should not be looking for any police officers to fill our department, but ones which reflect our communities and who demonstrate a community-oriented approach in their behavior and values.

What does the overall criminal justice budget look like?

There are more ways that the city spends money on solving crime than the police department alone. In Renton, our municipal court helps handle criminal cases and has its own staff and allocation. Renton has also been involved in lawsuits to block police reforms whose responsibilities fall to the city attorney. The spending on the municipal court and legal department pale in comparison to the police budget, but should be factored in when considering the criminal justice system as a whole. In the graph below “Criminal Justice” spending per capita represents the combination of the judicial, legal, and police budgets. It is not accounted for that these resources aren’t exclusively used on crime or police related matters.

Spending between police, legal, and court services 1988-2022.

Advocates who support prioritizing the city budget differently wonder if this is the most effective way to handle crime. It was documented by King County in 2012 that nearly half of inmates were in prison on re-entry, and of all inmates released nearly 40% were re-admitted to prison within five years. Something is not working. Those who have become critical of this system say we cannot expect to keep permanently increasing our prison population; we must work to effectively rehabilitate those who have committed crimes, and perhaps more importantly reduce the conditions which create criminal behavior.

What else can be done?

For many who share these concerns of the current system, investments into critical needs such as housing and mental health services appears to be an alternative route that could prevent a lot of future criminal behavior. While our police funding has increased with our growing city, our spending on human resources have remained abysmally low. Compared to the $450 per capita we spend across our criminal justice system, only $12 per capita is spent on human services. In the 90s, adjusted into 2021 dollars, spending was nearly $25-$30 per capita.

Comparison between spending per capita on the police department and human services in years 1988-2022.

The human services employment compared to the police department is another interesting comparison. For police staff there is about 1 FTE for every 670 residents, for human services there is 1 FTE for every 24,000 residents. It should be said that the police do hire some mental health and social service professionals, but, as advocates for reforms will counter, many communities don’t want to see a social service worker armed with weapons. The push for re-prioritizing spending for some is not to rid communities of policing, but to try to push away responsibilities that should go to other experts.

(left) graph shows the number of residents per human services staff. (right) graph shows the number of residents per police staff.

The story in Renton is that, at this time, there is not the political willpower to “defund the police”, and what that means will present itself differently depending on who is asked. What can be said certainly is that police spending has grown significantly over the past twenty years, spending hasn’t always equated to more officers, and high re-admission to prison proves to some degree our system is failing to stop crime. Today there are not any candidates in Renton for office running on a platform to defund the police, but that shouldn’t stop the public from imagining a better way to solve these issues, maybe ones which look toward the root of the problem first.

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