Montclair Day one of the Long March For Justice starting at Montclair and ending in Newark, NJ on 10/8/21. (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)
New Jersey communities spend far more on policing than on health and human services, an imbalance that has increased rates of police use of force and incarceration while widening racial disparities in the criminal justice system, according to a new report by New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP), a progressive think tank.
Community-based crisis-response and prevention strategies are better tools to improve public safety and to help people in crisis from mental illness or addiction, said Marleina Ubel, a NJPP policy analyst and the report’s author.
“We know the system of policing can cause a great deal of harm. We need to ask ourselves how we can do better,” Ubel said.
To highlight the disparate spending, Ubel studied budgets in Elizabeth, the state’s fourth largest city with more than 137,000 residents, and Gloucester County, a rural, predominantly white region of South Jersey that’s home to 300,000 people.
She found Elizabeth spends more than five times as much on police as it does on health and human services, with its police budget comprising 19% of the total municipal budget. Police spending there has risen an average of 9.2%, or $1.8 million, a year since 2018, she found.
An Elizabeth spokeswoman didn’t return a request for comment.
Similarly, in more rural South Jersey, the 24 municipalities that make up Gloucester County, as well as the county sheriff’s office, spend, on average, two and a half times as much on police as they spend on health and human services. Gloucester County police budgets typically account for a fifth of municipal budgets.
In both areas, the outsized spending does not appear to have had much of an effect on public safety, with police in Elizabeth solving only 13.2% of crimes and in Gloucester County, 25% on average.
The report says the reliance on police spending has contributed to systemic injustices, including:
- Racial disparities in state prisons, where 61% percent of inmates are Black even though Blacks account for only 15% of the total state population.
- Increased police brutality. More than 5,000 incidents of police force were documented between October 2020 and February 2021 statewide, averaging about 37 incidents a day. More than 63% involved people who showed signs of being under the influence of having a mental illness, and at least 44% involved Black people, the report found.
- Disparities in people killed by police. Since 2015, police in New Jersey have killed 86 people — 14 of them showed symptoms of mental illness at the time of death, and almost half were Black.
The Rev. Dr. Charles Boyer, founding director of Salvation and Social Justice, applauded the report at a Wednesday morning news conference the NJPP hosted to announce its findings.
“Budgets are moral documents,” Boyer said. “The amount of dollars that are invested in literally physically abusing people for mental health and substance use issues is astounding, and it shows where our morals are, where our priorities are. This report is a powerful reminder that the existing police response to a health crisis is unjust and immoral, and it does not keep us safe. We have underinvested in people, and we have overinvested in policing.”
Public health crises need public health solutions.
– The Rev. Dr. Charles Boyer
Ubel recommends instead beefing up spending on health and human service programs, which have been proven to promote public safety by addressing the structural root causes of crime.
Specifically, she calls on communities to expand addiction treatment and other health care; invest in green spaces and parks; fight blight and clean up vacant lots; fund quality early childhood education; and support community centers, nonprofits, and violence-interruption programs because they strengthen communities.
She also urged public officials to create “alternative response teams” that are specially trained to handle incidents involving domestic violence, mental health, addiction, and housing insecurity.
In Newark, for example, the Newark Community Street Team launched in 2015 to provide students safe passage to school, support victims, operate a trauma recovery center, and respond to reports of violence with mediation, counseling, and other referrals intended to restore peace and avoid arrest and incarceration.
“Public health crises need public health solutions,” Boyer said.
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