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

Emily Badger

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.

Most Popular

  1. Postcards showing the Woodner when it used to be a luxury apartment-hotel in the '50s and '60s, from the collection of John DeFerrari
    Equity

    The Neighborhood Inside a Building

    D.C.’s massive Woodner apartment building has lived many lives—from fancy hotel to one of the last bastions of affordable housing in a gentrifying neighborhood. Now, it’s on the brink of another change.

  2. Design

    The Military Declares War on Sprawl

    The Pentagon thinks better designed, more walkable bases can help curb obesity and improve troops’ fitness.

  3. Life

    Why a City Block Can Be One of the Loneliest Places on Earth

    Feelings of isolation are common in cities. Let’s take a look at how the built environment plays into that.

  4. Members of a tenants' organization in East Harlem gather outside the office of landlord developer Dawnay, Day Group, as lawyers attempt to serve the company with court papers on behalf of tenants, during a press conference in New York. The tenant's group, Movement for Justice in El Barrio, filed suit against Dawnay, Day Group, the London-based investment corporation "for harassing tenants by falsely and illegally charging fees in attempts to push immigrant families from their homes and gentrify the neighborhood," said Chaumtoli Huq, an attorney for the tenants.
    Equity

    Toward Being a Better Gentrifier

    There’s a right way and a wrong way to be a neighbor during a time of rapid community change.

  5. Modest two-bedroom apartments are unaffordable to full-time minimum wage workers in every U.S. county.
    Maps

    Rent Is Affordable to Low-Wage Workers in Exactly 12 U.S. Counties

    America’s mismatch between wages and rental prices is more perverse than ever.