Policing Urban America: A New Look at the Politics of Agency Size


  • *Direct correspondence to Elaine B. Sharp, Department of Political Science, 1541 Lilac Ln., Lawrence, KS 66045 〈esharp@ku.edu〉. The author is willing to share all data and coding information with those wishing to replicate the study.


Objectives. This article analyzes competing explanations for variation in the relative size of contemporary police forces in larger U.S. cities. The featured explanation is conflict theory, which previously provided much evidence for a racial threat thesis but limited evidence that racial insurgency affected police mobilization in the 1960s and 1970s.

Methods. The study sample consists of the 66 cities with a population of at least 250,000 in 2000. Aggregate data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Congressional Quarterly's America Votes, and the U.S. Census Bureau are combined with a content analysis using the Lexis-Nexis regional news database to generate the data set. OLS regression modeling is applied to the analysis of this cross-sectional data set.

Results. This analysis shows that the size of contemporary police forces is substantially shaped not only by the legacy of the 1960–1970 wave of racial unrest in the United States, but also by reaction to racial disorders in the 1980s and 1990s and by the prevalence of racial minorities in the current population.

Conclusions. Police departments' relative force size in 2000 is not only a result of incremental growth from the size attained by 1980, but also is dramatically shaped by whether the city experienced a race riot from 1980–2000 and, to a lesser extent, the size of the minority population and the violent crime rate. City wealth is a less robust indicator; and there is no evidence that either community ideology or the degree of uptake of community policing matters.