Calls to defund police departments are a growing part of American political discourse.
Demonstrators protesting decades of police violence against Black Americans in cities across the country have argued that some or all of the tax dollars that currently fund police departments should be instead rerouted to other social services.
In Manchester, Black Lives Matter organizers recently called on city leaders to divest from its police force.
“We do not need to be giving more money to a police department so they can have access to military grade weaponry,” organizer Jordan Thompson told NHPR. “We need to be reinvesting in our communities statewide and nationwide.”
Despite the calls, Manchester aldermen voted to add 10 new officers earlier this month.
In Keene, demonstrators called for a rethinking of how police departments in New Hampshire are funded. In Concord, city councilors recently voted unanimously to increase the size of the city’s police budget on Tuesday despite similar concerns from some residents.
Speaking on The Exchange recently, Hanover Police Chief Charlie Dennis, who is also President of the N.H. Association of Chiefs of Police, responded to the recent prevalence of these ideas by saying each community should have its own discussion. As for his own police department, Dennis said “certainly they’re welcome to look at my budget,” adding, “I would be happy to have that discussion.”
As debate over the proper size and role of police in American society continues, NHPR is attempting to answer a basic but important question:
How much are we spending on police in New Hampshire right now?
Using data from the New Hampshire Public Finance Consortium, a volunteer group of municipal finance officials, NHPR compiled the amount each city and town in New Hampshire spent on police, as well as three other government functions: fire, highways and streets, and health, in fiscal year 2019.
The data is reported by municipalities to the Department of Revenue Administration as part of the annual process for setting local property tax rates. The definition for each budget category, like “police” and “fire” are set by state statute.
The data shows towns and cities in New Hampshire cumulatively spend more on police -about $330 million in fiscal year 2019- than any other municipal government function. (Education spending is typically decided by independent school districts in New Hampshire, separately from municipal budgets, and is excluded from this dataset).
Individually, most communities in New Hampshire spend more on police departments than any other service, including fire, highways and streets, and public health. Fire departments are often a close second, while local public health spending is almost always dwarfed by police budgets.
The city of Manchester, for example, spent more than $4 million on public health in fiscal year 2019 according to the data -- by far, the most in the state. But during the same period, the city spent more than $38 million on its police department.
On a per-capita basis, towns and cities in New Hampshire spent an average of $194 per resident on police in fiscal year 2019. That compares to $112 per capita on fire departments, and $9 per capita on public health.
The range of per capita spending on police ranges from over $500 per resident in some communities to just over $100 per resident in others.
Variables like geography, property values, and the difference between a town’s daytime and nighttime population can influence these per capita figures.
For example, according to the data the town of Tilton spent the most per capita on police ($554) of any community in the state in fiscal year 2019. Town Finance Director Tim Pearson said that’s largely driven by the town’s small residential population, combined with its status as a popular shopping destination for tourists heading north along I-93.
“We have a pretty sizable commercial community with Tanger Outlets, a number of big box stores, and all kinds of restaurants,” said Pearson. “Most people come up to Exit 20, they do their shopping at Market Basket or Wal-Mart and they head off to their lake homes.”
The town estimates that during the peak tourism season, more than 25,000 cars pass through the shopping district each day. Meanwhile, the population of Tilton is estimated at just under 3,700.
That hasn’t stopped the debate about the role and size of police departments from reaching Tilton, though.
“I can tell you, I’ve thought a lot about law enforcement recently,” said Pearson.
Limitations of this data
For many towns with fewer than 3,000 residents, the New Hampshire State Police serves as the primary law enforcement body or shares responsibility with local departments. In an effort to create a more consistent data set, towns with fewer than 3,000 residents have been excluded from the table below.
Additionally, although the definition of each budget category is defined by the Department of Revenue Administration, there may still be discrepancies in how municipalities report their data.
For instance, the table below shows New London as spending the most per-capita on health. A call to the town’s finance officer revealed this is because New London categorized its ambulance services in the health category, while most other municipalities keep a separate budget line specifically for ambulance services.
Other examples may include facility costs for a police station or fringe benefits for police officers. Some towns may report these figures as part of the police budget, while others may lump facility and/or benefits costs for all departments into separate budget lines.
For these reasons, caution should be used in making direct comparisons between municipalities. The graphs below are meant to give a general picture of how spending on police in New Hampshire varies from community to community and how it compares to other basic government functions. (Not seeing the graphics and database below? Try clicking here to open them in a new window.)