How Does a City Decide How Many Police Officers are Enough Police Officers?

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Why does the City of St. Louis employ approximately 430 police officers per 100,000 residents? Perhaps the better question is: What factors lead the city to employ approximately 1,372 police officers?

From The Atlantic Cities: “One set of explanations, from the “functionalist” class, argues that departments staff up in relation to population density, or budget capacity, or the sheer quantity of crime. Then there is the class conflict theory: Widespread inequality forces police to beef up to protect the rich from the poor. And the race conflict theory: Law enforcement expands in response to the threat that minority groups pose to the majority.”

Now two University of Missouri graduate students think they’ve found a trend: Cities tend to increase their police force (counting full-time sworn officers) when they have high levels of poverty and broad racial economic inequality at the same time..

Guðmundur Oddsson, Andrew Fisher and Takeshi Wada looked back at police staffing levels from the year 2000 in 64 American cities with populations larger than 250,000. Their research was recently published in the International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy and is currently available only by purchase.

Reading the study, the following seems to succintly describe the findings: In cities with relative equality between Whites and Blacks/Hispanics the predicted relative size of police force decreases when the average poverty rate increases. In other words, wealthier cities are likely to have larger police forces. In poorer cities where the income distribution is more or less equal between racial groups, paying for police is not a budgetary priority. This finding is actually consistent with Sharp’s fiscal capacity hypothesis which claims that poorer communities are likely to pay less for police. That is, even when the income distribution is uneven, cities are less likely to increase their police forces if the population of poor is relatively small.

After initially posting this article, a couple Tweets from RJ Koscielniak caught my eye and seem especially pertinent to St. Louis and the part of the city most consider to be revitalizing. Taken in aggregate, “The Missouri study doesn’t take into account the privatization of police forces or ‘civilizing’ tactics separate from law enforcement. The size of the municipal police force is one node in the networks of discipline and security mobilized to protect cities. How do you ignore the trend of major urban institutions contracting private security services or developing dedicated police forces?”

Hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested in the City of St. Louis’ central corridor – a Mercedes dealership, Whole Foods, medical center expansion, more apartments and more retail. From the Highlands to Midtown, it’s clear things are changing. Much of these areas are policed by private forces, and/or greatly supplemented by off-duty police and other security, including the Washington University medical campus, the Central West End Neighborhood Security Initiative, Forest Park Southeast Supplemental Patrols (6,000 hours), Grand Center, Inc., and St. Louis University. It would seem that in a city like St. Louis, not accounting for this policing would obscure any conclusion based on the metropolitan police force alone. I’ve reached out to the study’s authors for comment.

I wrote the following in an article titled “Is the City of St. Louis a Safer Place in 2011 than in 1971? How Are We Supposed to Know?“:

Another question may be whether the City of St. Louis has the right number of police officers. A quick look reveals some variation in the number of police officers per resident across American cities. St. Louis employs 1,372 police officers, or 430/100K residents. Baltimore: 3,100 – 499/100K. Philadelphia: 435/100K. Boston: 333/100K. Memphis: 317/100K. Detroit: 388/100K. Charlotte: 230/100K (these numbers were updated 1/19). The more interesting question would be how the number of officers per resident has, or has not, changed over time.

Notably, as the Atlantic Cities states, “It’s unlikely that city or police officials are looking at these two data points – the prevalence of poverty and the extent of economic inequality between racial groups – to calculate departmental resources. It’s more likely, Fisher says, that police are responding to the presence of crime or the perception of fear that’s attributable to the intersection of those two trends.” The city is set to control its police force for the first time since 1861. This will allow the city to more efficiently consider everything from patrol patterns to staffing levels.

A fuller explanation from the study’s authors:

Cities with great economic inequality between racial groups will not strengthen their police force if poverty is minimal because less prosperous groups pose little threat to affluent groups if few live in poverty. Cities with great poverty will not heighten policing if economic inequality between racial groups is negligible because less prosperous groups do not threaten more successful groups if economic disparities are small and poverty is widespread. However, cities with high levels of poverty and great economic inequality between racial groups will enhance their police force because affluent groups are threatened by groups that are worse off when economic disparities are pronounced and many live in poverty.

We’ve covered issues of crime in various ways at nextSTL. Here are a few select articles for further consideration:

Understanding St. Louis: Total Crime Index, Violent Crimes and Property Crimes in City Neighborhoods

Understanding St. Louis: Homicide and Index Crime Totals and Rates 1943-2012

Understanding St. Louis: The 12 Neighborhoods of the 30-day Anti-Crime Initiative

What’s Wrong with Calling St. Louis the Nation’s Second Worst City for Crime? This:

From the Nation’s “Most Dangerous” City: St. Louisans Say They Feel Safe Walking Alone at Night

The St. Louis Metropolitan Region: Safer Than Santa Fe (and 101 Other MSAs)

City of St. Louis Homicides by Neighborhood 2005-2012

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  • kjohnson04

    This certainly explains a few things. Most of the villages of St. Louis County have police departments that are by and large unneeded and could be better served by a enlarged County Police force, but the city, would probably needs closer to 1800 officers makes due with less that 1400.

    That said, why is the city investing in contract security when the money could be funneled into police department budget and increase the size of the force, and intensify patrols in those areas?

    • Alex Ihnen

      Because there’s a lot of private money in hiring security. If you were the dean of a medical school wouldn’t you want your funds to go toward making the campus a safer place instead of just writing a check to the SLMPD?

  • Kaylick

    I posted the below comment on a previous older article. Then found the article above. Thought I’d repost here as well.

    —————————-
    One of the things I’ve noticed about Policing in the city of St Louis vs the outlining areas is the general disregard for pulling people over & writing tickets. I spoke with some officer friends about this. Their reply was “We try to important crimes, rather than writing tickets.” I couldn’t believe this. Writing tickets & pulling people over for poor driving habits or “small illegal activities” can be considered preventative policing. Generally speaking, someone who is committing small infractions, probably would be willing to do more “violent” crimes as well.

    I see it as getting folks off the streets (or sending them to areas outside the city) before they do something major as important. If people thought they were going to be pulled over for bad habits more often, and they have a criminal past, I’d bet they would leave the city and go somewhere else where they won’t be stopped or questioned.

    Way I see it is, I don’t care how many officers are on staff. What’s more important is how many are on duty at one time, and how effective are they in preventing crimes, instead of just responding to them. Also, more ticket writing puts more money into the city to increase personnel & help to fund projects that help increase the livability in a city.

    I lived in Portland, OR for 11 years and I’ve been pulled over for no seat belt about 3-4 times (I know, I should learn). No seat belt, no turn signal, speeding, are all probable causes that can help the police force remove problem folks before they commit the next major crime.

    Just a thought …

  • Don

    St Louis PD implemented a voluntary search program in the 1990s that got national attention. Police would ask parents if they could search their home to remove weapons. They promised no one would be arrested; they just wanted to get guns off the street

    Here is a DoJ review of the program (pdf): https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/191332.pdf

    I’d love to see a return to something like this, but it takes resources in the form of police officers on the ground.

  • Don

    Interesting discussion taking place at TPM about the rise and fall of the national murder rate in the US. http://nz4.u7.sl.pt The below chart is from that discussion (note the crack epidemic in the late 80s).

    Here is a fascinating look at the role of lead in the our national violent crime rise and decline. I’m embarrassed to say that I knew nothing about this. http://nz4.ub.sl.pt

    Compared to similarly situated cities, it seems our police force is about the right size. While I’m the first to criticize the American quest for perfect safety, I wouldn’t object to growing our police force by perhaps 5% to increase hotspot policing, depending on the tradeoffs necessary to fund the new officers.

    Of course race and poverty play a role in our current crime rate, but this is a conversation that has been taking place for 100 years or more with serious thought going into to remedies for at least the last 50 years. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent in urban America to alleviate the problem of race and poverty since Pres Johnson launched his War on Poverty and yet it remains, not just in St Louis but in all of America’s major cities. So what do we do about it?

    • Alex Ihnen

      What to do is certainly the question. While many decry today’s prison industrial complex, some believe that is has played a direct role in making US cities safer. The unfortunate thing in St. Louis is that the city hasn’t kept up with the pace of the larger national (though the metro area has – back to that conversation). The homicide rate has stayed stubbornly consistent in the city, but the trend the last couple years is clearly in the right direction.

      • samizdat

        If I’m not mistaken Mr. Ihnen, fully half of all incarcerated are there because of nonviolent offenses, such as drug possession. The claims that a larger prison population aid in deterring crime are a bit of a stretch. Matter of fact, many claim the opposite, as the conditions in most prisons, coupled with the absence of reform programs, and even such mundane things such as libraries or workshops, work to harden those whose offenses did not involve violent acts. As well, it pushes up the recidivism rate by leaving many, if not most ex-convicts with few choices as to how to employ themselves when they do get out. The average modern prison is nothing more than a warehouse for human beings who are most often not treated like human beings. And look at the deaths in prisons due to poorly treated–or worse, untreated–medical problems: most die because the state (or the for-profit prison company) refuse to perform their duties as caretakers. This problem is especially bad at the for-profit prisons. For-profit prisons and for-profit healthcare: the two worst and most immoral and shameful ideas to come out of this country since 3/5 of a man.

        • Alex Ihnen

          I could not agree with you more.

        • Don

          I don’t think you will find any one here to quarrel with you.

  • Eddie Roth
  • jack63103

    For those old enough to remember, you may remember that in the late 60’s the original 1% sales tax was sold on the citizens on the back of Mayor Cervantes’ promise to increase the size of the Force to 1800+ officers and to light the alleys. The alleys are all lit, the tax is still here, the Force did increase in size but has been reducing ever since.

    • John R

      Thanks for the history. I suppose its natural that there’d be fewer officers as we have a lot fewer people, but it would be nice to have more. Speaking of late 60’s, I just read that SLPS enrollment in 67-68 was over 115,000, compared to just over 27,000 now.

    • Eric

      “the Force did increase in size but has been reducing ever since.”

      As has the population. And, for the last 20 years, the crime rate.

      • kjohnson04

        But did that negate the need for a larger force, though? Our force should about the same as peer cities of the same size, but isn’t. Compare with LA and Chicago. Chicago has over double the officers of LA, but smaller population.

  • Chris Naffziger

    Alex, it might be helpful to post a map of the current police districts, perhaps superimposed over the map above. That would be cool to see.

  • Don

    Love the graphic but I’m struggling to read it. Is there a way to obtain a larger version. I really can’t read the numbers for the neighborhoods.

    • Alex Ihnen

      You ought to be able to click on it and view it larger in Flickr. There you can view and download a larger size. I’ve added the age here as well.

      • Don

        MUCH better. Thank you