Police staffing standards are a myth, experts say

How many police officers should a law enforcement agency employ?

The best answer: It depends.

Somehow, the idea of two officers per 1,000 people has been propagated as the standard for law enforcement agencies.

But the so-called standard doesn’t exist, according to several organizations.

Here’s what the International Association of Chiefs of Police says about specific ratios:

“Ready-made, universally applicable patrol staffing standards do not exist. Ratios, such as officers-per-thousand population, are totally inappropriate as a basis for staffing decisions. Defining patrol staffing allocations and deployment requirements is a complex endeavor which requires consideration of an extensive series of factors and a sizable body of reliable, current data.”

The Center for Public Safety Management, which provides public safety technical assistance for the nonprofit professional group, the International City/County Management Association, says there are no standard ratios for police officers per population.

Nor should there be, CPSM says, citing experts who say other metrics are more relevant — such as officer availability, workloads and the like.

The 2/1,000 ratio might have gotten traction based on the FBI’s annual report that shows numbers of full-time officers by region and geographic division by population.

For example, the 2019 report — the most recent available — shows that police forces in cities with more than 250,000 population in the Western United States employed 1.6 officers per 1,000 residents, on average.

That region includes Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming and has among the lowest ratios in the country.

The highest ratio for cities of more than 250,000 people, which is 3.1 officers per 1,000 population, existed at that time in the Mid-Atlantic region. That area includes New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

What does that have to do with Colorado Springs? Not much, actually, but it might help residents understand how the Colorado Springs Police Department sets its authorized strength.

If CSPD used the 2/1,000 ratio, which has been erroneously labeled a standard promoted by the FBI, its authorized number of sworn officers would stand at 972, based on a population of 486,000.

In reality, CSPD’s authorized strength is 818, but currently the department employs only 742 officers. So the actual ratio, using the 742 figure, is 1.55 officers per 1,000 population, which is in line with the average number of officers employed in Western states.

‘Clearly we don’t have enough officers on the street.’ — Randy Helms

If CSPD were fully staffed, the ratio would be roughly 1.68 officers per 1,000 population, which is still in line with averages seen in departments in Western states.

Asked about all that, CSPD’s Public Relations Manager Ira Cronin says via email, “Staffing is a complex issue as the needs of every community or city are different.”

Some departments protect urban areas, some rural. Some areas have high density, others less so, he notes.

“Policing philosophies would also have to be taken into consideration, such as discretionary patrol time and community policing efforts,” Cronin says. “Some of the key factors in determining the Chief’s recommendation to the Mayor would be things such as how large of an area is the department responsible for, how densely populated that area is overall, and how many areas in the city are pockets of densely populated neighborhoods and how much of it is more spread out, and how many calls for service is the department receiving on average.”

Those elements are taken into account when Police Chief Adrian Vasquez sets the number he feels is needed, which then is submitted to the mayor and City Council for approval, he says.

“There are many voices that have input on what the final authorized number for CSPD is,” Cronin says. “Our current goal is to reach the 818 that we are authorized for and then re-evaluate where to go from there in terms of further growth.”

City Council President Randy Helms called the FBI data “a calculation” but not a standard.

He tells the Indy he relies on the police chief to “give us a number” of officers needed based on various factors, including population and the area that the city covers, about 200 square miles, which makes it the 19th-largest city by area in the nation.

Another factor is response times.

“Coverage is important,” Helms says. “None of us are happy with response times. We want the response times to come down.” Officers’ average time to arrive at top priority calls has exceeded 12 minutes in recent months. Eight minutes is the goal.

Yet another factor is funding, he says.

“All of those come into play,” he says, adding, “Clearly we don’t have enough officers on the street. We should have 1,000 police officers. That’s just a guesstimate on my part.”

That said, if the city can add 70 to 80 officers in the next two years, he says, response times will improve.

The city hopes to reach its authorized strength within a year or two as it graduates more recruits. In the last year, the department has shifted to ongoing academy classes in efforts to raise its numbers, given that retirements and resignations have eaten away at the ranks. Whether those ongoing academy classes are feasible is partially dependent on training space. The police academy is overcrowded, officials say.