Police officers in Portland, Ore., have seen their ranks slowly dwindle as their fellow officers retire or seek other opportunities. At the same time, the city's population and number of 911 calls keep climbing. Officials say officers often don’t even have time to investigate low-level crimes.

The situation prompted police chief Mike Marshman to call attention to what he considers a “staffing crisis” as the city council prepared for a contentious vote on a new contract that included pay hikes intended to better retain and recruit officers. The debates about the contract, which was approved last week, are a situation that police chiefs and local elected officials often find themselves in: fighting over proposed cuts or funding increases.

The predicament raises an important question: How many officers does a police department need?

Data reported by law enforcement agencies to the FBI depict a wide variation in the size of departments. Washington, D.C., for instance, maintains by far the largest police presence of any city, with about 57 officers for every 10,000 residents. Not too far behind is the Wilmington, Del., Police Department, employing approximately 43 officers for every 10,000 residents. Those numbers seem big when compared with a place like San Jose, Calif., which has only 9 officers per 10,000 people.

In general, the largest cities have a greater presence of police officers than smaller and mid-sized jurisdictions. On average, all localities with populations of at least 50,000 employed 16.6 officers and 21.4 total personnel for every 10,000 residents in 2015, according to the FBI data.

Jurisdiction Population Average Total Personnel Per 10k Population Average Officers Per 10k Population Number of Agencies
50,000-100,000 20.4 15.9 419
100,000-200,000 21.0 16.1 165
200,000-500,000 24.4 18.6 73
500,000+ 29.8 23.7 33
All Departments 21.4 16.6 690
SOURCE: Governing calculations of 2015 FBI UCR data for cities of populations exceeding 50,000.

While the FBI data is useful for comparing cities, it doesn't tell us how many police officers a department needs. In fact, there's no national standard for how many police officers cities should have per capita.

Police association groups and experts think they have the answer. They generally advocate that officials base staffing decisions on a systematic analysis of an agency’s current and projected future workloads. Research published by the U.S. Department of Justice outlines such a performance-based approach to staffing, which relies, in part, on examining 911 calls.

Compared to other methods, this approach better accounts for characteristics specific to an individual agency or its jurisdiction. Still, it’s not without its limitations: It's labor-intensive, and the research suggests that it works best in jurisdictions that get at least 15,000 calls a year.

Despite its cheerleaders, the “workload” approach is rarely utilized. In fact, it’s the least commonly used method, according to an analysis published by the International City/County Management Association’s (ICMA) Center for Public Safety Management.

Instead, one of the most common approaches is to base staffing on population. But that doesn’t necessarily reflect agencies’ actual workloads.

Consider, for instance, how major cities see their populations swell significantly during the daytime. Roughly half a million workers commute to Washington, D.C., each weekday along with thousands more tourists.

Another common approach bases staffing levels on predetermined minimums set by prior policies. Such arrangements are often difficult to adjust as they’re frequently cited in collective bargaining agreements.

Last year, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a resolution proposing that the police department raise its minimum staffing level to match the city’s population growth since 1994, when a proposition setting a minimum staffing level was passed. A subsequent budget and legislative analyst report advised the city to instead conduct a workload-based assessment.

Police staffing is also subject to the budget. In an era of limited spending, cities can’t afford to pay for more than they need. But understaffing can also lead to negative financial consequences.

A recent San Jose audit found that mounting vacancies resulted in $36 million in overtime costs last year, consuming nearly 10 percent of the police department’s total expenses.

In addition to the ups and downs of a budget, upticks in crime frequently push officials to increase police staffing.

In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel initially rejected calls to hire more police but recently agreed to provide funding for nearly 1,000 additional officers in an effort to halt the city’s well-publicized spike in homicides. But the problem with tying staffing to crime levels, according to the ICMA analysis, is that it essentially incentivizes poor performance.

And of course politics factors into police numbers. Around election season, crime frequently surfaces as a political issue, leading some officials to beef up police staffing.

Economist Steven Levitt found a significant link between elections and hiring of officers in a 1997 research paper. In the agencies that Levitt reviewed, the number of sworn officers per capita grew by 2 percent on average during mayoral and gubernatorial election years and remained flat in other years.

On a smaller level, states and the federal government play a role in hiring.

Several agencies have been the beneficiaries of federal grants from the Justice Department’s COPS Hiring Program, which funds up to 75 percent of new entry-level officer salaries for three years. Last fiscal year, the program awarded a total of $119 million to 184 law enforcement agencies.

City Police Staffing Data

This table shows the number of officers and total law enforcement, including civilian employees, per 10,000 residents in each city. Data is shown for all law enforcement agencies serving jurisdictions with a population of at least 50,000 that are recorded in the FBI data.

SOURCE: Governing calculations of 2015 FBI UCR data.

Data notes

  • 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.”
  • Total employee figures include civilian positions, such as dispatchers, clerks and correctional officers.
  • Multiple agencies serving a single jurisdiction are not reflected in per capita totals.
  • Some larger agencies, including the Chicago Police Department, did not report data to the FBI.
  • Charlotte-Mecklenburg data reflect only the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department and exclude the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office.