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Police Staffing - How Much Is Enough?

Recently, Anna Halloran, Manager of the Community Indicators Initiative at Eastern Washington University, asked me to comment on trends in police staffing in Spokane County.  From 2008 to 2010, the total number of full-time commissioned police officers in Spokane County jurisdictions declined from 590 to 574 officers.  The 2010 staffing level of 1.22 officers per thousand population represents a 10 percent reduction from 2003 levels.  So, what does this mean for public safety in the community?

The number of sworn police officers per thousand population is a very common measure of police staffing, but I would be very cautious about making any conclusions about whether a community has too much or too little police protection based on this measure.

There are lots of factors that go into the appropriate level of police staffing for a community, including the volume of calls for service, the size and geographic configuration of the police beats, and whether there is the need for a more intense patrol presence in specific areas.  The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) states that, “Ratios, such as officers-per-thousand population, are totally inappropriate as a basis for staffing decisions. … Defining patrol staffing allocation and deployment requirements is a complex endeavor which requires consideration of an extensive series of factors and a sizable body of reliable, current data.”

It’s really important to assess public safety performance by using a range of measures, including citizens’ confidence in the police force and their perceptions of their own safety.  You want a community where the residents feel safe going for a walk by themselves in the evening hours.  If that sense of safety isn’t there, then police staffing may well be the issue.

So, if police officer ratios aren’t the best way to determine police staffing, then why do so many local governments use this as a performance indicator?  Well, it’s just that – an “indicator” that may or may not be pointing to a problem.  If your police staffing is below the mean, you should ask questions like, “Is the workload of our officers reasonable?  Do the officers have any discretionary time on patrol to engage in crime prevention or self-initiated stops?  Are we making progress in controlling crime?  Do we have problem areas that we’re not able to address because of staffing issues? Could we deploy our officers more efficiently?”

Of course, resource constraints are the other part of the equation.  Cities and counties throughout the state are under tremendous financial strain.  The discretionary items in local government budgets have been cut, and so now we’re seeing cost reductions in public safety like we haven’t seen in the past 20 or so years.  For some police departments, that’s meant wringing out all the efficiencies they can achieve.   For the hardest hit communities, it’s meant significant reductions in service.

It’s important to look at a range of public safety related measures.  It really takes at least five years of data to establish a trend, and it’s important to look at those trends over time.  There are going to be bumps up and down – but over time, the real question is whether you are achieving the public safety goals that the community has set.  The measure of officers per thousand population is just one indicator for whether you have a sustainable level of police staffing.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

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About Tracy Burrows

As MRSC’s Executive Director, Tracy seeks out innovations in local government, tracking trends in management and technology that impact your work. She has over 20 years of local government and non-profit experience, specializing in growth management, transportation, and general city management issues.