Sep 22, 2022 - COVID

How Virginia used COVID relief to fund law enforcement

Illustration of a police officer standing on the highest pile of coins in a row.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Virginia spent millions in COVID-19 relief money to boost spending on police, jails and prisons — money that was initially touted as a lifeline for people struggling to afford housing, food and health care.

Catch up quick: President Joe Biden gave U.S. cities and counties $350 billion to recover from the pandemic through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Few limitations were put on how local governments could spend ARPA funds.

The big picture: An analysis by the Marshall Project found that local governments have allocated around $52.6 billion for "revenue replacement," a vague catch-all category, and nearly half of that went to projects that mentioned police, law enforcement, courts, jails and prisons.

  • Less than 10% went to public health.

Zoom in: The biggest single allocation for law enforcement in Virginia came in the form of $23 million for a one-time bonus for corrections and law enforcement staff in the state.

  • Many localities followed the state's lead, including Richmond, which reported spending $7.5 million to boost public safety pay.
  • And dozens of localities from Danville to Fredericksburg used the money to buy new police cruisers.
  • Chesterfield County set aside $1.5 million to help fund the construction of a new police station in Midlothian.
  • Stafford County spent $40,000 to buy 34 iPads for sheriff's deputies, which the county said would allow officers to do everything from document evidence to attend meetings and trainings on Zoom.

Zoom out: At the national level, Biden is embracing the law enforcement spending as evidence that Democrats don't support defunding the police.

Meanwhile, local government leaders said that while the spending might only be tangentially related to the pandemic, it met federal requirements.

  • Ken Larking, Danville's city manager, told the Marshall Project, that the additional police vehicles purchased with the money meant officers wouldn't be sharing unsanitized vehicles with other officers.

Yes, but: A lot of the relief funding is going toward non-policing efforts locally. Richmond, for instance, used $19 million of its allocations to improve parks, community centers and build new trails.

  • And the state budgeted $111 million in new aid for college students and $100 million to help people pay utility bills.

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