Don’t doubt California cops when they report looting. They’re experts. Indeed, our state’s most successful looters are the police themselves.

California’s nearly 80,000 sworn officers have spent decades sacking the treasuries of local governments that employ them. Their escalating salaries, benefits, and pensions are swallowing up municipal budgets—and crowding out the other services, from libraries to summer programs. Police departments are by far the largest piece of city budgets, often consuming one-third of the general fund and half of discretionary revenues. 

The police have turned this fiscal dominance into unchecked political power. Police unions, fueled by dues from high-salaries officers, make the campaign contributions that determine local elections. So city council members rarely curb the pay or power of the police who installed them in office. The result: in many California places, city government doesn’t oversee the police department; the police department oversees city government.

This flawed government structure deserves more attention in our current crisis—because it helps answer a crucial question: Why does racist and deadly police behavior keep happening? The proper response to that query starts not with Twitter-spread conspiracy theories about protestors on our streets, but rather with recognizing that police have taken over our city halls.  

Police dominance of municipal budgets is an American problem, but it’s extreme in California. Our 120,000 full-time law enforcement officers—police, sheriffs, prison guards—are the nation’s highest paid. California consistently ranks among the state leaders in police spending ($414 per resident, compared to a national average of $354).

The peculiarities of California governance have long accentuated police power, as well as its costs. While local budgets were limited by Prop 13 and other tax limits, the “maintenance of effort” provisions in the state constitution—via Proposition 172, approved in 1993—required local governments to keep up spending on public safety. Thus, police budgets are constitutionally programmed to gobble up ever-higher shares of  limited local tax bases.  

Then, 20 years ago, the full-scale police looting of municipal budgets began, with retirement enhancements allowing officers to retire at age 50, with pensions nearly as high as their salaries. These pension boosts were both retroactive and permanent, and included easily-abused rules that allowed cops to maneuver to spike their pensions astronomically. Current LAPD Chief Michel Moore used one awful L.A. pension program, and a brief retirement, to pocket $1.27 million.

The escalating police pensions, along with lucrative disability benefits and costly retiree health coverage, crushed city budgets and helped cause a few municipal bankruptcies. The police costs also have added ironies to our current crisis on the streets. 

One irony is that today’s young protestors will spend decades paying the unaffordable retirements of the cops who are using tear gas and rubber bullets against them. Another irony is that massive increases in police budgets haven’t produced more police. Most cities have fewer sworn officers than they did in 2008. This lack of personnel helps explain why police departments struggled to muster enough officers to protect property from vandalism, arson, and looting. 

To be fair, California police are neither irredeemable nor unaware. Police collaborated with their critics to negotiate pioneering state legislation last year that limits police use of force. Some cities, notably Richmond, have transformed police-community relations. 

The LAPD, once a citadel of abuse and paramilitary action, is now a national model of community responsiveness and diversity, with 2/3 of officers now hailing from ethnic or racial minorities. Watching police and protestors up close recently in the Fairfax district, I was struck by how the protestors were more male and whiter than the cops facing them. 

But police departments have faced little pressure to surrender any of their local fiscal and political power—until now. Researchers at Black Live Matters are building a strong case for rolling back local police budgets. They successfully targeted Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s initial budget proposal, which cut virtually every city program except the LAPD, which got 7 percent increase. After activists launched a “People’s Budget campaign” to replace police spending with money for the homeless and renters, the mayor said he would trim the police budget instead. Nationally, some activists even want to end police departments altogether. 

That’s unlikely to happen, but California’s system of local government must change so that police no longer dominate our cities. This means empowering citizens to challenge police power in city hall, and perhaps forcing police to work under neighborhood service departments with a broader sense of community needs. 

But first, let’s stop the looting. 

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.