Volume 94, No. 4, Summer 2022
By Rick Su, Marissa Roy & Nestor Davidson [PDF]

Local governments heard their residents. In 2020, nearly half of the largest U.S. cities reoriented municipal spending priorities by directing money from their police budgets to social services;4 for many cities, these budgetary changes reversed decades of increases. Cities began implementing additional police reforms as well: New York City became the first municipality to end qualified immunity for police officers while San Francisco shifted to deploying crisis response teams, rather than police officers, to respond to mental health calls.

Instead of supporting these critical reforms, some states targeted cities that prioritized racial justice by preempting those cities’ ability to engage in meaningful change. In the 2021 legislative session, ten states proposed at least twenty-four bills to preempt local governments from reducing their municipal law enforcement budgets, five of which ultimately passed. State leaders were transparent that their aim was to quash police reform and racial justice efforts: when signing House Bill 1 into law, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis stated “[t]his bill actually prevents against [sic] local government defunding law enforcement . . . . We’ll be able to stop it at the state level.” However, these preemption efforts have much broader implications than preventing police reforms: in Florida, as many cities face declining revenue this fiscal year, House Bill 1 allows for the takeover of a local budget if any reduction is made to law enforcement spending, including necessary cost-saving measures such as a voluntary early retirement program to freeze hiring across municipal departments. These new preemption measures bring the state into some of the most fundamental functions of municipal governance. 

This wave of police reform preemption is relatively new and still limited in scope but should be cause for great concern. These preemption bills are racially targeted, explicitly aiming to stymie collaboration between racial justice activists and local government. And further, these bills are not sound policy, as they directly interfere with local governments’ ability to respond to constituents and manage a municipal department. Rather, these bills are transparently partisan, placing conservative states’ culture wars above the welfare of communities.