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The Persistent Significance of Racial and Economic Inequality on the Size of Municipal Police Forces in the United States, 1980–2010

Jason T. Carmichael, Stephanie L. Kent
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1525/sp.2014.12213 259-282 First published online: 1 May 2014


Recent empirical analyses of the social factors that predict municipal police force size support racial threat theory by suggesting that the racial composition of cities leads to enhanced social control efforts; however, these studies largely ignore explanations based on social class or the influence of an ethnic threat. We examine these alternative threat hypotheses by assessing the potential influence that recent increases in economic inequality and the substantial rise in the Hispanic population in the United States may have had on efforts to control crime. Using an advanced estimation technique to isolate the determinants of police force size in a large sample of U.S. cities between 1980 and 2010, we find that racial threat and economic inequality work both independently and jointly to produce substantial shifts in the size of police forces after accounting for levels of crime as well as other important demographic and structural characteristics. Furthermore, period interactions suggest that racial threat appears to have expanded over the last several decades. Together, our study uncovers novel interactive effects and identifies shifts over time, thus refining existing theoretical assumptions.

  • policing
  • inequality
  • social control
  • minority threat
  • residential segregation

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