by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
There are now fewer police officers per person in the United States than at any point in the last 25 years, recently released federal data show, after over a decade of decline.
There were roughly 214 police officers per 100,000 Americans in 2019, according to the latest figures from the Census Bureau’s Annual Survey of Public Employment and Payroll, which tracks employment across state and local governments. That represents a 1.5 percent decline from 2018 and a 9 percent drop from 2007, when police numbers last peaked.
Since that year, the number of sworn officers has declined precipitously, thanks in part to the Great Recession’s effects on police budgets and in part to growing hostility to law enforcement in the years since mass protests in Ferguson, Mo. Recent events, including a wave of retirements and the cancellations of recruitment classes amid public outcry and COVID-driven budget crunches, suggest that the trend will persist through 2020.
That trend bodes ill for violent crime in America—which has plateaued in recent years—given the large body of evidence finding that cops have a substantial impact on crime rates. The continued erosion of America’s police force, in other words, could mean a resurgence of the high crime rates that plagued the country throughout the 1980s and ’90s—a deadly consequence of this creeping trend.
The number of sworn police officers rose steadily throughout the 1990s, in part due to expanded federal funding under the 1994 crime bill. That increase has been associated with significant reductions in crime and is considered to be a major driver of the “great crime decline” of the late ’90s and early 2000s.
But, after remaining elevated throughout the middle of that decade, police employment rates began to crater amid the Great Recession, as state and local austerity kicked in.