Why we have slow police and emergency services

Police staffing is a challenging work anywhere in the world. The staffing needs to take into consideration the crime rates, the community’s requirement, available budget and resources, population, etc. to arrive at the best formula for ensuring sufficient police officers in the department.

There are many different approaches for staffing in police departments, which are discussed in detail in this article. Each approach has its own merits and demerits and the departments need to choose which is best suited for them.

There has been a discomforting growth in crime rates across the U.S. and to curb this, more police officers are needed. However, the police to population data shows that in the year 2016, there were 217 full-time police officers per 100,000 population in the U.S. This is the lowest figure since the time when the Bureau of Justice Statistics started tracking such data. This is an area of concern as it makes the law

enforcement process slow and unacceptable. Data further suggest that there is a disparity in the quality of law enforcement services received by the whites and the low-income minority groups. These low-income minority groups have to wait longer for response times from the police departments.

The current article also provides insights into working out an ideal method for police patrol allocation and deployment. Some salient statistics and findings of important studies on police staffing are also shared.

Police Department Staffing Formula

Staffing in police departments is a tough decision. There are many variables to consider and analyze to arrive at the best staffing formula. Ideal staffing is important as it ensures the safety and well-being of both- the community and the officers. It also addresses the problem of overstaffing or understaffing of police departments. Some of the most commonly used staffing approaches are discussed below:

Per-Capita Approach

The per-capita approach takes into consideration the resident population for determining the adequate staffing levels. It compares the number of officers with the population of a jurisdiction. The benefit of using this staffing approach is that it provides logic and simplicity for decision making.

The population figures for making such comparison are readily available. The drawback of this approach is that it addresses only the number of police officers based on population. It does not address how they spend their time, community requirements, quality of efforts of officers, how to deploy the officers, etc.

Minimum Staffing Approach

The minimum staffing approach requires police departments to keep the minimum sufficient number of officers for providing protection to the community and ensuring officer safety at the same time. this approach can be adopted for two main reasons. The policymakers in the community may decide that minimum number of officers are needed to ensure public safety. Secondly, police department may itself insist on minimum number of officers being on duty at all times.

The danger of following this approach is that police departments may determine the minimum staffing levels based on perceived needs instead of any scientific basis. This may lead to deploying too few officers when the workload is high or too many officers when the workload is low.

Authorized Level Approach

The authorized-level approach for staffing uses budget allocations to determine the number officers that can be allocated. The staffing under this approach is determined by resource availability and political decision making. A potential drawback of this staffing approach is that it does not consider any scientific criteria like workload analysis, demand for service, community expectations, etc. for staffing but is based on budgeting process and approvals.

The authorized level approach for staffing is simple where the previous year’s budget is reviewed in context with the current financial situation. The biggest problem of this approach is that staffing is driven by budgetary constraints and not based on the actual requirements. This can often lead to either overstaffing or understaffing of the police departments.

Workload-Based Approach

The workload-based approach determines appropriate workforce requirements based on the police workload. The staffing indicators and requirements are derived from demand for police personnel. This approach determines the future workload on police department by modeling the current activity levels. The objective is to match the demand of police personnel with supply to ensure effective law enforcement without any shortfall of personnel.

Conducting workload analysis can help to determine the demand for additional police personnel and arriving at the future expected workload. The drawback of this staffing approach is that it requires complex data modeling and analysis. The workload-based staffing approach is strongly advocated by ICMA (International City/County Management Association) as it is one of the most accurate and reliable predictors of police staffing requirements.

Coverage-Based Approach

As discussed, the workload-based approach is a popular and scientific way of determining and meeting police staffing requirements. However, it works best for medium and large agencies and is not suitable for smaller agencies. Police departments with low volumes of call rates can consider making judgments about suitable staffing levels and levels of policing required for deterrence and rapid response, along with ensuring the safety of the officers.

A very small portion of calls require rapid response but most police departments are organized and staffed to treat every call as rapid response. Under the coverage-based approach, staffing can be done based on the proximity of the crime location from a central location. Making patrol beats smaller can effectively increase the response times.

Ideal Police to Population Ratio

Each country has its own unique features when it comes to crimes. This means that they will need to adopt different levels of policing and their police to population ratio will vary accordingly. However, to provide some perspective and serve as a benchmark, the United Nations (UN) recommends ideal police to population ratio to be at least 222 per 100,000 population.

The Vatican City is one of the smallest countries in the world with a small population but has 15,439 police officers per 100,000 population, which is the highest anywhere in the world. Pitcairn Islands (UK) has 1,754, Montserrat (UK)-1,544, and Belarus has 1,442 police officers per 100,000 population.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were 701,000 full-time sworn-in officers in the U.S. in 2016, down from 724,000 in 2013. This translates to police to population ratio of 217 in 2016, down from 229 per 100,000 residents in 2013. Interestingly, this is known to be the lowest police to population ratio in the U.S. history, since the Bureau of Justice Statistics started tracking it. There is a need to increase the police to population ratio in the U.S. as it is less than the minimum recommended levels provided by the UN.

Police Allocation Manual

The Police Allocation Manual (PAM) is an important document designed to be used by the state and provincial law enforcement agencies who are responsible for delivering police traffic services. The PAM helps these agencies to decide the adequate number of officers required to provide the acceptable level of service. This may include the deployment of resources like troopers, field supervisors, staff, and command personnel.

In addition to recommending the number of personnel to be deployed, the PAM also helps in deciding their deployment. It provides guidance on how the officers can be allocated in different geographies and time periods to ensure best results and maximize the agency’s productivity.

The staffing and allocation models and methods suggested in the PAM are based on review of different procedures currently being used by provincial agencies in the U.S. The best practices among all the agencies have been carefully studied and to develop the PAM. These best practices have then been modified and blended in a holistic model for determining the staffing and deployment patterns for state-wide agencies. 

PAM is a prescriptive model based on information about the workload, desired performance levels, and the characteristics of jurisdiction. It is used to prescribe the requirement of officers for different agencies. It is important to note that PAM is not a descriptive model and it does not specify a fixed number of officers to be recruited and deployed.

The PAM also cannot predict the changes which will result in the patrol performance or workload, based on an increase in the number of personnel.

The prescriptive nature of PAM makes it a powerful tool in the hands of decision-makers. In addition to prescribing the adequate staffing levels for the current workload, performance objectives, and jurisdiction characteristic, it also provides solutions to what-if situations. It can provide solutions to questions like what will be the impact on staffing if the current workload increases by a fixed percentage, or the average travel time to accident or other CFS is reduced by 1 minute.

There are some limitations to using the PAM which should be kept in mind. The failures from PAM can result not due to inefficiency of the system itself, but by unrealistic expectations by police planners about the capabilities of the system. The PAM cannot compensate for incorrect or incomplete input data. The PAM model can be sensitive to accuracy of some data items more than the others. PAM can only prescribe the staffing requirements of officers when performance objectives are provided.

In other words, PAM is not a method for determining the adequate staffing levels without management involvement or inputs. The model cannot be used to predict the future workload of a given patrol area. Another important point to consider for the planners and decision-makers to consider is that the PAM model will not convince the legislators or policymakers to increase funding support for additional staffing needs.

The policymakers are bounded by funding constraints and political realities which supersede the findings generated by PAM or any other similar models.

Police Patrol Allocation and Deployment

Police patrol allocation and deployment is important to ensure sufficient number of units are deployed for patrolling for responding to service calls. The key factors which influence and decide the police patrol allocation and deployment are discussed below:

Number of Units Busy in Call for Service (CFS) Work

The police patrol allocation and deployment depend on the occupancy of patrol units in CFS work. The police department needs to assess and know quickly that how many patrol units are assigned and busy with CFS work in real-time. This will provide them clarity on the status (occupied/non-occupied) of the patrol units for CFS work.

The average hourly call rate and the number of unit hours per call can help to predict how many patrol units will be busy on CFS work on a daily basis. Generally, the number of patrol units deployed must at least equal the average number of units expected to be busy on CFS work. Not doing so will make it impossible to respond to service calls.

Unpredictable Nature of CFs

CFS work is highly unpredictable. Service calls do not come in an orderly or evenly spaced manner. There may be no calls during some hours, while some hours may be filled with service calls.

This unpredictable and random nature of service calls makes it impossible for any police department to deploy only the minimum number of patrol units required for any situation. Another problem is that even on the receipt of a high-priority call, some patrol units may be unavailable due to being occupied with non-CFS work. This will significantly delay the response times, which will not be acceptable by most police departments.

Unavailability of Patrol Units

Patrol units may be sometimes unavailable even though they have not been dispatched on any call. This can be due to being unavailable for lunch, repair and maintenance of the patrol vehicle, special assignments by a superior officer, execution of warrants, etc.

These activities are also referred to as non-CFS work. Non-CFS works can take up considerable time of patrol units, with studies claiming that more 30% of their time can be consumed by it.  Hence, it is always recommended to have more than the minimum number of patrol units deployed for CFS work, in case some units are occupied with non-CFS work.

Calls Distinguished by Priority

Calls made to the police department should be distinguished based on priority. Some calls require immediate attention and response, while others do not warrant such an immediate response. In such cases, the patrol unit will achieve as much, even if there is a slight delay in responding.

An example of such low-priority call can be for a burglary which happened several days back. Each police department may have their internal processes for bifurcating between such high and low priority calls.

This distinction helps them to plan the allocation and deployment of patrol units better and quickly. Missing out on a high-priority call due to the patrol units being deployed to a low-priority call is not desirable for any police department.

Patrol Frequency

The patrol frequency also determines the patrol allocation and deployment. Patrol frequency is the number of times per hour that a patrol unit on preventive patrol will pass by. The patrol frequency in any location increases directly with the speed of the patrol units and the average number of patrol units available.

Patrol frequency decreases in inverse proportion to the number of street miles in the command. Patrol frequency may have to be higher in neighborhoods with high crime rates. Increase in patrol frequency can curb crime rates to some extent. The patrol units can be allocated and deployed in advance, if the patrol frequency is known.

Law Enforcement Staff Study

There have been many studies conducted on law enforcement staffing. The salient findings of some of the prominent studies are presented below:

Staffing Analysis Study- Wilmette Police Department, 2016

A staffing analysis study was conducted for Wilmette Police Department in 2016. The authorized staffing level for the department was 44 officers in 2009. 34 sworn positions or 79% of its allocated staffing level was committed. 2 of the 34 sworn-in officers served as tactical officers, also known as Mission Team Officers.

The Mission Team Officers don’t have particular fixed shifts, but they are assigned when crime patterns are occurring. They work in plain clothes and unmarked vehicles and are responsible for narcotic investigations and stakeouts for recurring crimes.

The Wilmette police department follows a coverage-based staffing approach and had marked out 4 beats as their operational area. The coverage model allows them to have adequate number of units for covering the town.

Police Department Operational and Staffing Study-Village of Illinois

The study conducted in 2014, assessed the operational and staffing aspects of the Lansing Police Department (LPD). The study revealed that patrol shifts work for 12-hours on rotating basis. The shifts are staffed with 6 officers on each of the morning and night shifts.

LPD responded to nearly 45 calls per day, with Friday and Saturday being the busiest days of the week, registering 47 calls. The average travel time across all beats was nearly 9 minutes. Patrols also have high levels of practice time and remain active during this time by generating activity as well as following up on previous crimes.

Is Response Slower to Low-Income Neighborhoods

Some studies have revealed a disturbing trend that law enforcement response times are slower in low-income neighborhoods. The data obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, shows that the African-American and Latino neighborhoods located on Chicago’s west and south sides, continue to suffer from slow and inequitable police services.

The data establishes the fact that the low-income minorities consisting of African-American and Latino neighborhoods have to wait much longer for police response after dialing 911.

The residents of Grand Crossing, which is a neighborhood with minority population had to wait an average of nearly 11 minutes for a police officer to be dispatched in response to their priority 1 call. On the other hand, the residents of Jefferson Park, which is white-dominated community had to wait less than 2.5 minutes after making the same priority 1 call.

Most of the minority neighborhoods had more priority 1 calls compared to white neighborhoods. The minority district of Grand Crossing has 2.6 times more priority 1 calls per beat officer, compared to the white district of Lincoln/Foster. The reason for this can be attributed to the fact that these minority population are generally subject to more violent crimes.

Similar situations are reported in Detroit. The police response times are found to be slowest in some of the city’s poorest and crime-ridden neighborhoods like Warrendale, Brightmoor, Chandler Park, Ravendale, etc. Out of 26 zip codes with more than 2,000 calls to 911, 6 locations reported the response times of over 45 minutes.

These 6 locations fall into the most poor and impoverished category with an annual per-capita income of $16,000, according to the U.S. Census. Similarly, the 6 zip code locations with the swiftest response times (nearly 25 minutes), were economically stronger with an average annual per-capita income of $22,000. According to the U.S. Census, the average annual per-capita income for Detroit is $17,900.


The total number of full-time law enforcement officers in the U.S. stood at 670,279 in 2017. The number of full-time law-enforcement officers has fluctuated over the years, hitting a peak of 708,569 in 2008 and a low of 626,942 in 2013. Credible research studies have shown that increased police staffing is a cost-effective way to reduce crime.

Staffing of each additional police officer in California reduces the crime by 1.3 violent crimes and 4.2 property crimes per year. another research reveals that the benefit from crime reduction amounts to nearly $300,000 per year, which is much more than the annual cost of hiring an additional police officer. Further, 66% of Californians think that African-Americans and other minorities don’t receive the same treatment as received by whites.

In 2016, police departments serving cities with a population of more than 25,000 employed an average of 16.8 police officers for every 10,000 residents. It has been observed that the largest U.S. cities employ more police officers compared to the mid-sized and small cities. In 2015, California spent $16.2 billion ($414 per resident) on police protection. Florida spent $7.3 ($360 per resident), New York $9.2 billion ($465 per resident), and Texas $7.1 billion ($258 per resident) on police protection in 2015.  CWP

Emergency Alert Systems (Community Watch Paper blog)

What is Public Safety (Community Watch Paper blog)


https://www.policechiefmagazine.org/staffing-the-small-department/ https://icma.org/sites/default/files/305747_Analysis%20of%20Police%20Department%20Staffing%20_%20McCabe.pdf

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