According to a federal survey in 2016, there are more than 12,200 local police departments nationwide, along with another 3,000 sheriff’s offices. And most of those don’t look like the New York Police Department, which employs more officers than Brooklyn Center, in suburban Minneapolis, has residents.
Nearly half of all local police departments have fewer than 10 officers. Three in 4 of the departments have no more than two dozen officers. And 9 in 10 employ fewer than 50 sworn officers. Brooklyn Center, which has 43 officers, and Windsor, which reported a seven-member force, fit comfortably in that majority.
Experts say that while smaller departments have their benefits, including being able to adapt to their communities and hire officers with local ties, these agencies also are typically able to avoid the accountability being sought as part of the national movement to restructure and improve policing. These departments’ often limited resources and the decentralized structure of American law enforcement complicate efforts to mandate widespread training and policy changes, experts say.
“You want to change American policing, figure out how to get to … the departments of 50 officers or less,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based group that works with police departments. “How do you reach them? How do you get to them? … That’s what the American people keep wondering.”
Former Charlotte police chief Darrel Stephens said smaller departments will have a harder time diverting officers to training to learn new tactics or practices, since they have fewer officers to put on the streets overall.
“I don’t want to denigrate them, because there’s a lot of good people doing things in the right way for the right reasons,” Stephens said. “But their capacity is just limited.”
But there are also other differences, owing to the remarkably localized nature of American policing.
Policies and practices can vary significantly from department to department. These differences can include how departments approach the use of force as well as the levels of training and specialization involved.
“It’s unlike any other country,” Wexler said. “In places like the United Kingdom, you have a Home Office, you have standards. In Germany or Israel … they have a national police. Our policing is completely fragmented, decentralized, with no national standards.”
The smaller departments in the spotlight recently have come from three very different communities, and all involved officers doing what police described as relatively routine police work: traffic stops and serving warrants.
In Brooklyn Center, an officer shot and killed 20-year-old Daunte Wright during a traffic stop; the police chief said the officer, who resigned and was charged with manslaughter, meant to user her Taser, not her service weapon.
Police in Windsor stopped and held Army 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario at gunpoint in December for not having a permanent rear license plate. In video footage that spread widely last month, the officers are heard yelling and berating Nazario and are seen striking and pepper-spraying him before handcuffing him. One of the officers involved was fired amid the public outrage over the footage, recorded by the officers’ body cameras and Nazario’s cellphone.
On April 21, sheriff’s deputies in Elizabeth City shot and killed Andrew Brown Jr. while attempting to serve a felony warrant, officials said, an episode that has spurred intensifying questions, criticism and protests.
These were not the only police departments to have drawn attention recently. Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder last month in the death of George Floyd, and police in Chicago and Columbus are under scrutiny after fatal shootings of children. But those departments, all among the country’s largest, are the outliers.
The Pasquotank County Sheriff’s Office in North Carolina, whose officers were involved in the Elizabeth City shooting, for instance, has 55 sworn deputies for a county of more than 39,000 residents. Sheriff’s offices differ from police departments in that police chiefs are usually appointed and sheriffs are typically elected. But the numbers remain pronounced: More than 3 in 4 sheriff’s departments have fewer than 50 officers, according to the federal survey.
While policing has become the subject of protests and fraught national debates, exactly what kinds of departments are charged with keeping citizens safe — including how many there are, the number of officers they employ and their demographic makeup — often gets glossed over.
The 2016 federal survey is the most recent available, according to the Justice Department. A new survey is in the field, but it is unclear when that data will be released, the department said.
The latticework of law enforcement draped across the country doesn’t just include departments of varying sizes, but forces with distinct procedures that often exist side by side in neighboring communities.
That means “the rules of policing change depending on where you are,” said Dennis Kenney, a former Florida police officer and a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
“It's not even county to county,” he said. “It's city to city. Within a county, you can have one police department that has one set of policies and another that has another set of policies. And certainly the level of training varies greatly.”
Kenney was an officer with the Bartow, Fla., police department in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when it had around 40 officers, he said. Since then, he has consulted with a number of other police agencies, including national departments in Colombia and Thailand.
One key difference in having thousands of police departments, rather than one central force, is how long it takes for changes in training or policies to ripple outward, he said.
“I spent a good amount of time working with the Colombian national police,” Kenney said. “And if you want to make a change in their agency, basically you’ve got a general to convince and it flows downhill from there.”
In the United States, “if you’re trying to do systemwide things or things that involve collaboration, then it’s much more difficult,” he said.
Kenney pointed to community policing, a concept that involves building ties between officers and the communities they patrol, as an example. Advocates of the approach had to sell it to thousands of different agencies, he said.
“Local policing is the most decentralized institution in the United States and the world,” said Stephens, the former Charlotte chief.
“There are pros and cons” to the American system, said Christy E. Lopez, who oversaw the Justice Department’s investigation into the Ferguson, Mo., police department after 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in 2014.
“It’s a very big country with different challenges in parts of it,” said Lopez, who now teaches law at Georgetown University. “I like the idea we have different agencies that can experiment … and be responsive to that particular community. I think there’s value to that.”
But with this diffuse system, much more attention is usually paid to the largest departments, such as those in New York (which has roughly 36,000 police officers), Chicago (more than 12,000 officers) and Los Angeles (about 9,000 officers).
While most individual police departments are small, the majority of officers nationwide work for the biggest forces, patrolling communities where the largest populations live. Departments with at least 100 officers account for 5 percent of all police agencies nationwide, but they employ more than 6 in 10 full-time officers.
Those officers police communities that also may still have news organizations who can provide scrutiny and coverage.
“The places you hear the most about might not be the worst places,” Lopez said. “They might be the places with the loudest advocacy groups, the most robust media markets or even just they’re better about sharing their information.”
Additionally, policing across the country is still shrouded in opacity in significant ways. The number of people shot and killed by police is tracked by The Washington Post. Other details of uses of force — including how many times police across the country fire their guns and miss, or hit people who survive — remain unknown.
When it comes to smaller police departments, “there’s just no oversight and no accountability, to a very large extent,” Lopez said.
“They’re never going to have a police commission. They’re never going to have a civilian review board,” she said. “They’re never going to have a major media outlet focus on them.”
That, she said, is why there needs to be more transparency built into policing, such as state policies mandating certain details be made public. “So that no matter how small the agency is, there are certain things they’re required to do and certain things we are required to know about them,” Lopez said.
Some experts said it might be good to review whether every police agency is necessary and whether any could be consolidated. Such calls are not new, they said.
“You don’t need to have five or 6,000 or 10,000 officers. Sometimes you get lost in all of that,” said Stephens, who was Charlotte’s second police chief after the city consolidated its police with Mecklenburg County. “An agency of 150 or 200, 250 officers isn’t that large to begin with, but it’s generally in a much better position to provide the full array of services.”
But trying to merge departments could be difficult in some cases, because many politicians are loath to give up an agency operating under their aegis.
“Mayors and city managers and city council people just don’t want to give up control,” said Kenney, the former Florida police officer. “As a result, small cities will maintain very small agencies because they like … being able to get a response from the police when they want it.”
Ultimately, he said, “we like localized control over the police.”