Cops on the street: How many are needed?

October 24, 2012

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Many police agencies are using ineffective methods to determine how many patrol officers they need and how to best deploy them, a Michigan State University criminologist says.

As a result, Jeremy Wilson has created a research-based approach to police staffing and allocation that could ultimately improve police work for agencies stretched thin by layoffs and expanding police roles.

"Typically, police agencies just kind of throw patrol officers at their workload," said Wilson, associate professor of criminal justice. "This approach shows them how to efficiently determine the number of officers they need and also how to deploy them to different shifts."

Wilson and Alexander Weiss, an MSU adjunct professor and consultant, created a police staffing guidebook and executive primer based on interviews, case studies and research with police agencies across the United States. The project was funded by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, a division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

The guidebook, "A Performance-Based Approach to Police Staffing and Allocation," provides a relatively simple staffing formula based on current levels of police calls and the performance objectives of the agency. The approach takes into account multiple factors such as when the calls are heaviest, nature of the calls, shift length and whether officers are assigned to additional duties beyond patrol.

Currently, many police agencies base staffing on a per-capita formula. In Lansing, Mich., for example, there are 2.1 officers for every 1,000 people, while Ann Arbor, Mich., has 1.3 officers for every 1,000 people.

But this approach fails to take into account important factors such as crime rate, size of the service area and the patrol officer's non-crime related activities which often include community policing, Wilson said.

"The per-capita approach has been advocated for years," Wilson said. "But most experts will tell you it's the worst thing to base staffing levels on because it doesn't account for so many other things."

Setting police staffing levels has become even more difficult in the past few years as agencies have dealt with budget-driven downsizing and hiring freezes, mass retirements and a shortage of new officers.

"Meanwhile," Wilson said, "the demand for police officers is increasing because of the need for local police to address community policing, homeland security and other emerging issues such as immigration enforcement, computer crime and violence in schools."

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