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Across the political spectrum, politicians, commentators, and activists frequently invoke federal funding as a lever to induce changes in local police behavior. But can federal funding function as an effective policy lever at the local level? Is federal funding or the threat of defunding a sufficiently strong tool to effectuate deeply contentious policy goals over local opposition?

This Essay conducts an empirical examination of federal funding for local and state police agencies in the United States. It finds that the federal government remains a relatively minor contributor to local police budgets. We find that federal funding only reaches a minority of local police agencies. Similarly, federal funds account, on average, for a relatively small percentage of what the typical American municipality spends on policing each year.

Overall, our findings suggest that most American law enforcement agencies are not acutely reliant on federal funding. These findings have several important implications for the literature on police reform and accountability. First, efforts to use the lever of federal funding to alter the behavior of local police departments may be ineffective. This may be particularly true when the reform demanded by federal lawmakers is expensive or unpopular locally. In such cases, rational local leaders may assess that the risk of losing federal funding is preferable to change demanded by federal lawmakers. Second, our findings suggest that federal lawmakers may be better off considering alternative paths other than the withholding of federal funds in promoting constitutional policing. To this point, we briefly lay out some additional avenues for federal police reform that do not rely on leveraging limited federal funds. Finally, our findings reinforce the fact that the ongoing debate about defunding police departments and reimagining public safety must occur primarily at the local, not federal level.