If you are skeptical of the police, your best bet might be to head out west.
With the exception of St. Louis, which actually rests on the western shores of the Mississippi River, the top 58 cities of over 50,000 people with the most full-time police officers per capita all fall east of the river that traditionally divides the nation into east and west, according to the FBI’s 2010 Crime in the United States report.
But what does this regional split say about how different parts of our country function at a community level?
Check out the following graphic, showing the average ratios on both sides of the Mississippi. Hover over the circles to see the stats:
On average, cities east of the Mississippi have 20.72 police officers for every 10,000 residents, while cities west of the river average 13.67.
Topping the list is a collection of oft-cited high crime cities. Washington, D.C. is in the number one slot with a whopping 61.2 officers per 10,000 residents, followed by nearby Baltimore with 47.4 and Chicago with 44.1.
The East Coast trend is broken only when Shreveport, Louisiana pops up in the 59th slot, with an average of 27.1 officers per 10,000 residents. Other western cities with relatively large police forces are San Francisco, in 63rd place with 26.5 per 10,000, and Los Angeles, in 69th place with 25.9.
Lieutenant Raymond E. Foster, LAPD (ret.), who currently works as an international justice consultant, says the apparent discrepancy has to do with a mixture of crime-prevention philosophy, city planning and housing infrastructure.
Two main theories for policing have emerged in the U.S.: one method, relying more on area patrols, is more prevalent on the East Coast, while a more responsive patrol car approach is used on the West Coast.
“When you walk through New York City, you might see a cop on every single corner just standing around,” he told Fusion. “But when you go to L.A. you will see them rolling by with sirens on, on the way to a crime.”
The debate with between these two approaches, says Foster, has been going on since the 1970s, when the Kansas City Preventive Patrol Experiment took place.
That experiment found that traditional routine patrolling by marked police cars did not appear to affect the level of crime, nor did it change the public’s perception of safety. The findings shook the foundation of what was long considered the backbone of policing — the effectiveness of neighborhood patrols.
On the heels of the findings, sprawled out western cities began changing their tactics. Police departments started deploying officers to enforce the law after a crime had already been committed. In the east however, the strategy of crime prevention continued, which is more concerned with building community relationships; a principle that inherently requires more manpower.
“Cops in eastern cities, on average, are less active, but they are more engaged with the community,” Foster said.
Cities on the East Coast, especially in low-income, high-crime areas, tend to have high density housing that require more officers on patrol, Foster said. But in the west, development tends to be more spread out and an urban core that’s less densely populated, so fewer officers are needed.
The top 20 cities in terms of ratio of police officers to residents. Only St. Louis, which is actually on the Mississippi, is considered a western city
Stephen Mastrofski, a professor of criminology at George Mason University, has a different take.
“The most direct explanation might well be one of a difference in political culture. Further to the west, the political culture of local communities may look less favorably toward investing public dollars in policing than do the communities further to the east,” he wrote in an email to Fusion. “You could test this by looking at per capita expenditures on other traditionally local services, such as public education. The same pattern should persist.”
He is right on that account. According to City Data, a similar pattern emerges when you look at top cities with the most fulltime firefighters. And a 2010 U.S. Department of Education report noted that annual expenditures per public school pupil for public elementary and secondary school districts broke down in a similar way.
Nationwide, the rate of sworn officers for a city of over 50,000 was 17.27 per 10,000 inhabitants, making Las Vegas, Nev., and Green Bay, Wis., representative of the national average.
When it comes to evaluating which form of policing is more effective at reducing crime, the boots-on-the-ground method frequently used on the East Coast is the most effective, according to New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, who previously held the same position in Los Angeles. During the early 1990s, the NYPD saw a jump in hires, and the tactic played a huge role in effectively reducing crime for over the last two decades. The author called the result a “breakthrough” moment for policing strategists.
Quality policing should make more of an investment in a community, rather than chasing fires once they have already started, Bratton wrote in Police Chief Magazine.
“Good policing not only sought the approval and cooperation of neighborhoods and communities to define and solve problems,” according to Bratton. “Good policing also prevented crime by changing the behavior of a substantial number of would-be miscreants.”
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.