Much has been made in recent years about whether “defunding the police” is a bad slogan and a bad idea. It seems pretty clear, in Hartford at least, that most people don’t support the idea. But there’s another defunding move that hasn’t gotten much attention and is doing far more harm: municipal budgets that underfund real public safety.
When Hartford residents ask me to talk about what the city should be doing better, they generally ask for a safer and more comfortable life: they talk about crime, sure, but also about problems with absentee landlords who don’t basic maintenance; broken playground equipment that could injure their children; streets where drivers drive too fast; high rates of asthma, especially in children; and rising rents. These are elements of public safety, and all of them — with the exception of the police force — are shamefully underfunded.
Each year of Mayor Luke Bronin’s tenure, and for many years before him, funding for the Hartford Police Department either held steady or increased. Even two years ago, when the city council cut funding slightly in response to protests, the department ended up spending more by tapping into other city funds.
In the mayor’s proposed budget for the coming year, the department’s budget jumps to nearly $50 million — the largest ever. Hartford currently has more than twice as many police officer positions as the national average per capita for cities our size. This is despite the fact that most research shows that the number of officers and the level of expenditure have little effect on the evolution of crime. These mostly occur at the national level, in multiple cities with different laws and different budget priorities.
Meanwhile, Hartford has only eight housing inspector positions, some of which are vacant – less than half of what we once had, and far fewer than we need (New Haven has 17; Rochester , NY, has 30). The mayor’s budget is not intended to increase that number. Too few housing inspectors means it’s much harder for our city’s renters — nearly 80% of the population — to make sure their apartments are safe to live in. That means more sickness, more asthma, more school absences, more missed work for the doctor’s appointment. This is what it looks like to underfund public safety.
All of this is happening in the midst of a housing crisis. Rents are rising dramatically, and families who have paid rent smoothly for years are struggling to find affordable housing. Evictions are exceeding pre-pandemic levels and Hartford has one of the highest eviction rates in the state. Although the mayor’s term saw the construction of a considerable number of new dwellings, none of them were public housing. Its budget provides no emergency funds for those facing eviction, even as the number of homeless people increases. The same families who are forced to put up with unsanitary conditions because the city doesn’t have enough housing inspectors can’t move into better homes. This is what it looks like to underfund public safety.
Perspective on the biggest stories of the week from the Current Opinion page
Outside the home, families face other dangers to their well-being. Road deaths are on the rise throughout Connecticut, and residents of Hartford know the ever-present risk posed by motorists running through red lights.
Increased police spending has not made a dent in this problem, but we know from research that redesigning roads can. If we gave enough money to the Department of Public Works to do it. Instead, projects drag on. After painting bike lanes that were supposed to be protected by a row of parked cars on Wethersfield Avenue, the city failed for months to install signs to tell drivers where to park.
At a budget hearing last week, the director of public works was unsure whether his department would be able to put up physical barriers to discourage cars from parking in the cycle lane. It’s been almost two years since a cyclist was killed by drag racers on this stretch of Wethersfield, prompting the new cycle lanes, and the project is still not fully functional. This is what it looks like to underfund public safety.
Public Works, the department with the most city-dwelling employees — and the lowest salaries — needs more street sweeping trucks and more public trash cans to keep our neighborhoods clean. The chief of the Hartford Fire Department – another agency whose majority of employees reside in Hartford – said during budget hearings that he needed funding for 20 positions to meet the needs of a densely populated city with aging housing. The Ministry of Families, Youth, Children and Recreation receives less than a tenth of what our police service receives in the proposed budget. We spend more on the canine unit than on early childhood services. This is what it looks like to underfund public safety.
Just $5 million from the police budget could further fund our fire department and public works department, triple the number of housing inspectors, double early childhood spending, and create a massive emergency fund for help families avoid homelessness. And that would still leave us with more cops per capita than the vast majority of small towns – even towns with similar levels of crime and poverty. This is not defunding. It’s smart budgeting.
You can support the police and recognize that public safety is about more than law enforcement. And we know from mountains of research that the best way to reduce crime and improve our quality of life is to invest heavily in housing, health, infrastructure and youth programs. The Mayor’s Budget does none of that, delivering criminalization where our children, our families and our communities need support. If Hartford residents are to prosper, we need investments in real public safety and we need them now.
Josh Michtom is a member of Hartford City Council.