Reuters

Findings from the police staffing levels of 64 U.S. cities.

There are a few competing theories to explain the size of municipal police forces and why they vary by city. 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.

Guðmundur Oddsson and Andrew Fisher, sociology graduate students at the University of Missouri, propose that the most likely answer is actually none of the above. In research published in the International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, they and Takeshi Wada looked back at police staffing levels from the year 2000 in 64 American cities with populations larger than 250,000. The trend that emerged: 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.

"In short," they write, "both class and race matter. What is more, class and race interact."

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.

This means that police size doesn't necessarily respond to racial inequality if the poor population is small, and likewise that widespread poverty doesn't necessarily drive police staffing when everyone is equally poor, blacks and whites alike. The data they've gathered supports the idea that the most combustible scenario – or the one police think they need to respond to – is one where the gulf between low-income minorities and the upper-income majority is broad, and where the low-income population is large. Or, as the authors explain it:

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.

This also implies that cities that do the best job of creating racial economic equality and widespread opportunity may be able to devote fewer resources to keeping the peace. One would think they'd also be less likely to devote extensive resources to "racially discriminatory" police tactics.

Top image: Carlo Allegri/Reuters

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Transportation

    What Happens When a City Tries to End Traffic Deaths

    Several years into a ten-year “Vision Zero” target, some cities that took on a radical safety challenge are seeing traffic fatalities go up.

  2. photo: a WeWork office
    Equity

    For Many WeWork Employees, the Job Is About to Change

    The co-working giant is letting 2,400 employees go and outsourcing 1,000 cleaning and facilities jobs as part of a company-wide belt-tightening.

  3. photo: A stylish new funeral parlor called Exit Here in London.
    Design

    Death Be Not Dull

    U.K. restaurateur Oliver Peyton’s newest project, a style-forward funeral home called Exit Here, aims to shake up a very traditional industry.

  4. Life

    Talent May Be Shifting Away From Superstar Cities

    According to a new analysis, places away from the coasts in the Sunbelt and West are pulling ahead when it comes to attracting talented workers.

  5. photo: Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar
    Equity

    What a Trillion-Dollar Housing Pledge Looks Like

    Representative Ilhan Omar’s Homes for All Act would fund the construction of 12 million new homes in the U.S. over 10 years, mostly as public housing.  

×