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Here is a list in Wikipedia that tells us the ratios of police vs civilians in various countries around the world.

I failed to think of any rationale about how those countries determine the number of police personnel in service. I see that some countries have low police personnel but crime is high, others have low crime but the number of personnel is high.

What does the police to civilian ratio depend on?

How do the countries decide how many police they would put into service?

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  • Slightly less trivially, it is a function of how many police the governments in charge of hiring police choose to hire.
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 1 '21 at 20:36
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A few comments from a German perspective:

  • Self-selected targets
    Unlike the fire and ambulance service, where states publish targets like "95% of calls in less than 15 minutes," there are no formal standards for the police, but there are planning goals how long it would take to get a SWAT team or a company of riot police just about anywhere in the country. This influences the planning decisions for the budget.
    Other countries might set other goals. Not every country is highly urbanized.
  • Budget
    Police cost money and there are always other areas where that money could go. The police leadership provide their professional estimate what they do need. The law enforcement experts in the political parties either agree or disagree, and then the political leadership of the police puts an allocation request into the parliamentary budget process. There they compete with infrastructure, social services, the military, and a myriad other budget items. How the police estimate goes depends on the political priorities of the parties in power. That's not all-or-nothing, no government will completely defund the police, but numbers can go up and down.
  • Training cycles and vacancies
    In Germany, it takes several years to train a police officer. On top of that, the class size can only be expanded immediately if the police academies where running below capacity (unlikely, or their budgets would have been cut to actual requirements). So it will take half a decade or so from the decision to increase the police force to the graduation of increased classes.
    It is usually possible to fill each slot with a candidate when the training cycle starts, but some of the candidates are dismissed and others quit.
    Officers in a state police could apply at another state or at the federal police. Those states who pay less, or have worse working conditions, see this as poaching from their training pipeline.
  • Distribution of tasks
    Germany has federal and state police and the municipal code enforcement offices (Ordnungsamt). Ordnungsamt employees are technically not police, yet they can write tickets for parking violations, littering, and things like that. And then there are the customs office, which enforces some law other than customs duties, the tax office, domestic intelligence and counterintelligence agencies, the military police -- all technically not police. An international comparison would have to make some judgement calls where it draws the line.
  • Paperwork
    About half of the work of a German police officers involves filling out forms. Some of that is essential to effective police work -- detectives follow the money trail, or cross-check alibis, or look for similarities to old cases. Some of that is essential to the public perception of professional police work -- showing that a stop was for cause and not racial profiling, for instance. And this public perception is of course necessary for effective policing. And finally, some paperwork is simply pointless.
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    A good analysis. A lot depends on definitions and distribution of work. In the UK there has been a movement to hire cheaper civilian workers to do a lot of tasks, from admin to crime scene work, that might have been done by police in the past or in other countries. And there is also the issue that police are often required to act as unofficial social workers, mental health nurses, community workers, etc, so in societies where these services are properly funded police will have less to do.
    – Stuart F
    Nov 1 '21 at 12:56
  • That distribution of tasks point is pretty significant -- there's a big distinction even within a country like the United States as to what counts as police work and who gets counted as "police," often influenced by unions. Nov 3 '21 at 18:28
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Just eyeballing the data:

A Bell Curve

The lowest rates (Tunisia and below) to a significant extent reflect poor governments (i.e. those with few economic resources per capita) with small budgets that can't afford to hire more police. The next lowest rates are associated with places that are affluent and low in crime (e.g. Finland). Indeed, one can imagine police staffing rates on a Bell Curve which is lowest in the most affluent/peaceful countries, and in the least affluent countries, and highest in the middle.

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Added by Azor Ahai, called out some countries discussed on this page. n=121 countries I could quickly locate HDI for in that table

Economies of Scale And Urbanization

There are some economies of scale in policing, so very small population, small geographic area nations tend to have more police per capita. Many of the developed country high end outliers are such countries.

Not unrelated is that higher levels of urbanization, on average, are associated with more police per capita.

Other Outliers Mostly Due To Classification Issues

Palestine is an outlier and probably represents, to some extent, police forces being overstaffed in lieu of a military or paramilitary force which it is not permitted to maintain by Israel.

The low rate for China is also probably, in part, a classification issue with less of a clear divide between authority figures who constitute law enforcement and authority figures who do not. Likewise, China makes less of a clear division substantively between crimes and non-criminal anti-social conduct, treating these two things as more of a continuum.

I suspect that there are a few other outliers lurking which are driven by classification issues that defy the attempt at apples to apples comparisons that the list is trying to make.

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    I thought you had a cool idea, so I made a quick plot. I added it to your answer rather than add another one just for that - but feel free to let me know if you'd rather I do that. Nov 1 '21 at 23:24
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    That’s fascinating - I honestly expected dictatorships (or “police states” if you will) to have a markedly higher proportion of police. Nov 2 '21 at 11:21
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    @AndrewGrimm "Police states" are not necessarily characterized by having more police but rather by having police which is less obstructed by concerns for civil liberties.
    – Philipp
    Nov 2 '21 at 12:42
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    By "poor governments" do you mean governments that have relatively few resources or governments that do not function well? In other words, is it "poor" as opposed to "wealthy" or as opposed to "good," "adequate," or "superior"?
    – phoog
    Nov 3 '21 at 8:26
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    @phoog I mean "relatively few economic resources per capita".
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 3 '21 at 18:00
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There is not a hard rule about how many police officers a state should employ. Its governed by individual financial, political and strategic circumstances.

First, the state assigns a budget for law enforcement. The size of that budget depends on how much money the state has available and how much they consider law enforcement to be a priority compared to the many other line-items in the states budget. This is a political decision. Perhaps the current representatives were elected on a "tough on crime" platform, so increasing law enforcement budget is important. Or perhaps they were elected on a "fiscal responsibility" platform, which means they need to use every opportunity they can get to reduce budgets. Or perhaps the state faces problems very different from law enforcement right now, so they need to put the budget somewhere else.

Then the branch of the government which is responsible for law enforcement decides how they want to spend that money. They could decide to spend it on more police officers, or they could decide to spend it on better police officers (more training, better equipment, higher hiring standards which mean they need to pay higher salaries). How they make that decision should be a strategic decision depending on the specific challenges they face in the field. But political pressure also plays a role here. For example, every person hired by the public sector is one less person who takes a job in the private sector, so the size of the police force can be used as a tool to increase or decrease the unemployment rate. So increasing or decreasing their staff might be a political demand the police needs to fulfill. Or they might have to invest money or people into equipment or activities which do not help much with their mission but are politically desired to change the image of the police.

So bottom line is, if one wants to make an argument that a certain state has too many or too few police officers, then it's not useful to look at statistics to compare it to other countries. It is important to take the specific political circumstances into account.

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