Police State

By Neil Reilly
Not your standard patrol car. Image: Ken Fager (Flickr)

Not your standard patrol car. Image: Ken Fager (Flickr)

In the wake of recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, there has been much discussion of the militarization of law enforcement agencies in the United States. While some reports have focused on the delivery of military-grade equipment to local police departments, TBQ writer Dvora Meyers asked an interesting question: How large are US police forces compared with other nations’ militaries?

Below is a snapshot comparing American local police forces with the military forces of NATO member states. Using data from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, we have compiled the expenditures and staffing of police forces for America’s 34 largest cities (those with over 500,000 population). Of those, only Louisville, Las Vegas, and Fresno did not report data to the federal government.

In terms of both expenditure and manpower, American local police matches or exceeds the size of sovereign militaries. Although the United States’ military spending dwarfs that of all other nations in absolute and per capita terms, the statistics reveal that — surprisingly — in per capita manpower, the largest US cities have police-to-population ratios that far exceed the US military personnel-to-population ratio (call it a Force Ratio).

Chicago’s Force Ratio is almost 2.5 times more than that of the US. Los Angeles is on par with France and the UK — but New York City’s Force Ratio is twice as high. Meanwhile, US cities’ per capita spending also matches up with NATO militaries: New York’s police spending is higher than Canada’s military spending and almost as high as France’s. Washington, DC (population 630,000) spends almost as much per capita on its police force as the UK does on its military — over $900 per year for every man, woman, and child.

Though these data comparisons show a lot, they also have some limits. The police figures include only local-level agencies — not county, state, or federal employees. So these data may actually under-represent the police presence in a city like Washington, DC, for example, where there are more than just municipal police. The data presented here do not bear directly on the situation in Ferguson, where the police response shifted from the Ferguson local police to the St. Louis County Police, followed by the Missouri State Police. Finally, these figures do not speak to the equipment and firepower available to US local police vis-a-vis national militaries — a subject that warrants further exploration.


Reilly headshotNeil Reilly is a TBQ Blog Editor. He works as a policy analyst at Citizens Housing & Planning Council, and writes on data and urban social policy matters.  

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