Last year, after George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, the largest mass protest movement in American history forced what many called a national racial reckoning. Many protesters demanded that cities “defund the police.” The Black Lives Matter movement has consistently amplified this much-debated call.

A year later, we wanted to know: Did the Floyd protests work? More particularly, did this mass protest movement prompt local governments to defund the police? News outlets have reached mixed conclusions. We analyzed the link between local racial-justice protests’ intensity and changes in municipal law enforcement expenditures and found that, yes, overall, cities with more-intense protests did significantly decrease their police expenditures. But that wasn’t true in every city. Many cities increased their law enforcement budgets, perhaps suggesting a racially conservative backlash.

How we did our research

To test this link, we collected municipal law enforcement expenditure data from Smart Cities Dive, which houses verified police budgets for fiscal 2020 and 2021. The sample includes the largest city in each state, providing a snapshot of how municipalities responded to the movement across the country. We gathered protest data from the Crowd Counting Consortium, a publicly available set of data on politically motivated crowds in the United States. We included all pro-Black Lives Matter and racial-justice protests. In total, we looked at the relationship between police budgets and the 982,000 protesters that took to the streets between May 26 and July 31, 2020.

We also created an original data set of budget adoption dates for all cities in our sample and analyzed data from cities that adopted their budgets after the protests began.

We measured protest intensity in each city as the per-capita number of participants who took part in racial-justice protests before that city adopted its fiscal 2021 budget. For example, for Los Angeles, we identified 75 racial-justice protests, consisting of approximately 110,000 total protesters, between May 26 and July 7, when the city adopted its budget. This equates to about 27 protesters per 1,000 city residents. We measured police expenditure differences as the change between fiscal 2020 and fiscal 2021, per capita and as a percentage of the city’s total general fund expenditures.

Cities with more-intense protests were more likely to reduce police funds

We found that cities that hosted more-intense protests reduced their police expenditures more than cities where protests had been less intense. Cities where large numbers of protesters turned out, relative to their populations, decreased police expenditures by an average of $12 per city resident. Los Angeles’s relatively high protest rate translated into a $2.50 per-capita cut in police spending. Minneapolis had an even higher protest rate of 77 participants per 1,000 residents, which coincided with a $32.50 per-capita chop to police spending. (For reference, cities spent an average of $422 per resident on law enforcement in 2021.)

The flip side was also true. Cities that had below-average protest activity increased their per-capita police spending by $2 per resident. Atlanta, which had 16 protesters per 1,000 city residents, increased police expenditures by $20 a person. Birmingham, Ala. — which, at less than 8 per 1,000 residents, had one of the lowest protest rates in our sample — increased per-capita police spending by $55. In fact, 45 percent of the cities in our sample increased their per-capita law enforcement expenditures, despite the severe financial strains caused by the pandemic.

Further, even the cities that reduced police expenditures per capita did not necessarily reduce law enforcement’s share of those cities’ overall budgets. Many cities that had intense protests funneled a larger percentage of their expenditures to policing. This was in part because of overall budget decreases caused by the pandemic. Additionally, many cities have responded to public pressure by hiding police expenditures in other parts of their budgets and supplementing local cuts with an influx of federal cash. For instance, Los Angeles shifted funding for school resource officers to its education department while labeling it as a cut to the police budget. Last April, $850 million of federal coronavirus relief funds were allocated for local public safety needs. This is on top of the local expenditures captured in our analysis.

We also looked at the factors that explain which cities experienced more-intense protests. Places where more people turned out to protest tended to be more liberal, more Democratic and more White. Floyd’s murder seemed to inspire more Whites than usual to demonstrate for racial justice. That may have helped cue policymakers to respond to their demands. This is in line with evidence that White support for racially liberal policies surged last summer and suggests that policymakers responded to White constituents’ demands for change.

In contrast, more-conservative cities that saw less intense racial-justice protests went on to increase police budgets, which may suggest a backlash. The fact that liberal White cities experienced more protests than liberal cities with large minority populations is in line with the theory that proximity to racial minorities tends to make Whites more racially conservative. This, in turn, will make them less likely to protest for racial justice.

What does this mean for the future?

Our results indicate that protests can prompt meaningful change, but that change may be modest and inconsistent. Local policymakers appear to have responded to the rapid shift in public opinion, at least on the surface.

Will the Black Lives Matter protests continue to reduce local police expenditures over time? Recent polling finds fewer than 1 in 5 Americans supports defunding the police. Additionally, White Americans’ support for Black Lives Matter has dramatically declined. We will soon be able to look at cities’ fiscal 2022 budgets to find out whether last summer’s protests have lasting effects on police funding.

Joshua Ferrer (@Jferrer505) is a PhD student in political science at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Joyce Nguy (@joycehnguy) is a PhD student in political science at the University of California at Los Angeles.