How Many Police Officers Are Needed? The following article has been written by David Sullivan. It includes editorial content which is the opinion and story of the writer.
In the scheme of things I found this a challenging subject. Policing is not a “cookie cutter” operation and the number of officers needed to secure the safety of cities across the country varies considerably. There is no formula or guideline that serves as a source of reference.
The number of officers a city needs is continually discussed and debated with three officers for every 1,000 citizens being the popular consensus: kind of a one size fits all. Based on that premise and the 2019 population of 197 million people living in
incorporated cities in the United States, about 653,000 police officers would be needed to protect just our cities alone, separate from federal, state, and county law enforcement agencies. As of 2019, there are approximately 443,000 police officers, or 2.3 per 1,000 citizens, serving in municipalities. I could not find a source supporting, or opposing, three officers per 1,000 citizens as a hard fast number.
The number of police officers a department actually needs is complicated and varies from city to city. One particular city has 2.26 officers per 1,000 citizens and a crime index of 449, significantly above the national crime index of 270. Another city of equal size has only 1.22 officers per 1,000 citizens and a crime index of 208, well below the national index. Three other cities have almost 5 officers per 1,000 citizens yet all three have a crime index double or nearly double the national average. So the assumption that three officers per 1,000 citizens can satisfy all cities is unrealistic. The crime index is the number of offenses per 100,000 citizens police departments report to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
Before determining the variables related to any city’s policing needs, we have to address the controversy following the 2014 Michael Brown incident in Ferguson, Missouri and the more recent 2020 death of George Floyd during an arrest attempt.
Politicians, feeling pressure, began to “de-fund” police departments in favor of a new “Department of Public Safety”. Now, more than two years later, with no feasible strategy for de-funding, cities are experiencing a rise in crime, the exodus of major businesses, community safety issues and a severe shortage of police officers.
There is no single issue that determines police officer numbers. Each individual city should examine multiple factors specific to that city. In most cases no one factor should outweigh another in determining officer numbers. The police chief and command staff are responsible for evaluating the department’s goals, strategies and objectives and deciding where officers are assigned throughout the department. Generally, the Patrol Division would have the highest percentage of officers.
In addition to licensed police officers, the department will also have civilian employees in administrative and support positions where officers are not necessary. However, problems can arise when city administrators decide that budget cuts are necessary and civilian employees must be let go. The position must still be filled so now a police officer is reassigned to fill the vacant position with that officer will likely be pulled from the Patrol Division.
When determining staffing needs, all cities have one thing in common; the collective knowledge and leadership of the command staff and that knowledge must result in the most effective management of police officer personnel. President Theodore Roosevelt said, “Do what you can where you are with what you’ve got”. Police operations must be
based on crime trends, intelligence gathering, critical public safety issues and 911 calls for police services and which of those calls can be satisfied with just a phone contact between the officer and caller.
One factor, determined by statistical data, is the number of officers assigned to the Patrol Division who respond to the community’s emergency needs and the citizen’s most frequent contact with the police. Ideally it should be 55% to 60% of total available officers, more for some departments, less for others.
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Other factors include total population, population demographics and population density relating to both multi-family and single-family residences along with the total square miles of the city. Even the median household and per capita income can have a bearing on crime and in turn the number of officers needed. Unfortunately there’s no single solution. For some cities the number of officers per citizen works while officers per square mile is a better fit for other cities.
City operations can impact crime in both positive and negative ways. The degree to which the city addresses the infrastructure, confronts slumlords, the effectiveness of code enforcement, the availability of safe parks and recreational facilities, and municipal court convictions can all factor into police officer numbers.
The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 introduced Community-Oriented Policing with the goal of bringing together the police department, city services, the news media and the citizens to address quality of life concerns with crime issues the focal point. The most obvious factors, and most subtle factors for determining the number of police officers needed should have already been discussed, evaluated, and settled between the police, city leaders, the citizens and media support. Unfortunately, Community-Oriented Policing failed, and viable partnerships never came to fruition.
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Even attempts to form positive community/police relations have met with limited success. And it’s most likely going to be the budget that determines the number of officers hired void of any community/government coalition. As long as the issue of police numbers continues to go unresolved, police departments and their officers will continue to be the convenient scapegoat.
My name is David Sullivan and I’m a retired 26-year Air Force veteran where I was a hospital laboratory director and the superintendent of the Bacteriology Department of the Air Force laboratory training program. I got into policing with the Dallas Police Department at the age of 48 and was in the Northeast Patrol Division until I retired again at the age of 65. At the age of 76 I returned to policing again with the Lakeview Police Department serving the cities of El Lago and Taylor Lake Village, Texas as a patrol officer. I retired once again at the age of 82 after serving six years. I have a Bachelor of Criminal Justice Degree from Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas. I published a book titled The Police The Public and Crime which is no longer in print. I’m working on a second book titled Beyond the Donuts.