Public Safety & Justice

Which Cities Have the Biggest Police Presence?

Police staffing levels vary greatly across U.S. cities, averaging about 17 officers per 10,000 residents. View and compare employment data for each jurisdiction.
by | May 9, 2014
Washington, D.C., police
Washington, D.C., has more police per capita than any other U.S. city. David Kidd/Governing
 

For every 10,000 District of Columbia residents, there are about 61 Metropolitan Police Department officers. A similar number of officers serve nearby Baltimore given the city’s size. But in many other larger jurisdictions, police departments employ fewer than half as many officers per capita.

Police presence varies greatly across U.S. cities, driven by call volumes, municipal budgets and a range of other factors.

A review of the latest police employment data reported to the FBI in 2012 shows police agencies serving jurisdictions with populations exceeding 50,000 employed an average of 17 officers per 10,000 residents. Totals for each city are listed in the table below.

Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department reports that it employs 3,982 sworn officers and another 430 full-time civilians to police the city of about 630,000. After the District, cities with the highest per capita rates in 2012 were Baltimore (47 per 10,000 residents), Chicago (44 per 10,000 residents) and Wilmington, Del. (43 per 10,000 residents).

Many cities near the top of the list in terms of police presence tend to be areas with higher crime rates.

“It’s a lot easier for a chief to go to a budget meeting and ask for more officers if there’s a huge crime problem,” said Meg Hollis, a Michigan State University assistant professor who researches police staffing.

In general, suburban jurisdictions and mid-size cities employ fewer officers per capita. If they border a major city, though, staffing levels might be a bit higher, Hollis said.

While crime rates do matter, they're far from the only factor dictating the size of a city's police force. For one, jurisdictions might lack a budget to fund a larger department. Some cities require more patrols or other varying needs. There's also the geographic size of the jurisdiction, as more officers could be needed to cover larger areas.

Certain types of cities are also often home to significantly greater numbers of law enforcement personnel. Take college towns, for example, which have campus police departments, often with powers of arrest and their own detective units. These other types of law enforcement agencies are difficult to tally, so they’re not reflected in cities' per capita rates.

When setting employment levels, some jurisdictions base staffing decisions primarily on how they compare to peer cities. Hollis said such simple comparisons can be problematic as much more should be factored into the equation.

Instead, police agencies can examine call volume and the geographic distribution of requests over time. Knowing how many officers are needed to address key problems specific to a community is also helpful, Hollis said.

“There’s a balance between what government expects you to do,” Hollis said, “and what the citizens need you to do and are asking for.”

The U.S. Department of Justice published a guide outlining an approach to setting police staffing levels based on workload and performance objectives.

But at the end of the day, how much more effective are larger police forces in reducing crime?

Research is mixed. One study reported a negative correlation between police staffing and crime rates, finding increasing crime rates when jurisdictions cut staffing. For the most part, research suggests that the effect of hiring additional officers plateaus once staffing reaches a certain point.

Local Police Employment Data

This table lists 2012 police employment data for all agencies serving at least 50,000 residents that reported data to the FBI.

Source: 2012 Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program, Full-time Law Enforcement Employees

Interpreting the Data

  • The FBI defines officers as employees who “ordinarily carry a firearm and a badge, have full arrest powers, and are paid from governmental funds set aside specifically to pay sworn law enforcement.”
  • Common civilian positions include dispatchers, clerks and correctional officers.
  • Multiple agencies serving a single jurisdiction are not reflected in per capita totals.
  • Employee counts were reported by individual law enforcement agencies and are current as of October 2012.

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