The Right Number of Police Officers

Photo by Cliff1066

The District currently has more cops than Baltimore or Denver, both of which have larger populations than us. WUSA9 brought this up in light of the fact that Mayor Gray’s proposed budget would reduce the number of officers from 3,800 to “below 3,700” in 2012.

WUSA9’s video goes through the population and number of officers for Baltimore, Denver, and Atlanta, which I have collected along with DC’s numbers.

It would have been helpful of WUSA9 to provide the actual crime rates of these cities, but I guess that’s what Google is for. Turns out, Baltimore and Atlanta both have higher violent and property crime rates than the District. Denver‘s a more mixed picture–property crimes are so much higher that they bring up the overall number of crimes per thousand above DC’s, but the violent crimes are lower.

Of course the relationship of the size of the police force to the crime rates is far from straightforward–near as I can tell (from Wikipedia) New York City has fewer police officers per thousand than DC but much lower crime rates.

So to return to the cause of this discussion: should District residents be concerned about the proposed reduction?

I don’t think so for one main reason: the reduction doesn’t appear to be that large. Granted “below 3,700” is a vague term that could mean anything from 3,699 to 0. Fortunately, the Washington Post was more helpful than WUSA9 in this regard–the number of officers cut from the force will be “approximately 100“. This is in the noise–as the Post article notes, more than twice that amount are expected to retire by the end of next year.

Crime enforcement has come a long way in the past twenty or so years in this city, and as much as I enjoy a good budget-slashing, cutting down on the police force wouldn’t really be the area I’d focus on. Still, despite the police Chief’s protests, I have trouble thinking that a difference of 100 officers will really have that huge an impact.

As to the question of what the right number of officers is, I don’t really have an answer. But I’m certain that drawing comparisons to a handful of cities that have worse crime rates than we do isn’t really going to help anyone arrive at a meaningful answer.

Hat tip: Greater Greater Washington



    • so around 270 additional crimes a year, most of them (~210) property crimes. Nevertheless I think the effect in this case could be even smaller, since–if I understand correctly–this will involve merely not replacing all the officers who leave for reasons like retirement, rather than laying off 100 officers currently employed. Since the last year or more of an officer’s career are very unlikely to be their most productive in terms of bringing down crime, losing them probably has a negligible impact on crime rates. The difference between no officer at all and an officer who is going to be retiring soon is probably too small to measure, in terms of the difference in crime rates.

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