Social Context, Institutional Capacity, and Police Services: A Local Public Economies Perspective

Published date01 March 2018
Date01 March 2018
270 Public Administration Review • March | April 2018
Public Administration Review,
Vol. 78, Iss. 2, pp. 270–283. © 2017 by
The American Society for Public Administration.
DOI: 10.1111/puar.12875.
Agustin Leon-Moreta is assistant
professor of public administration at the
University of New Mexico. He received
his PhD in public administration and
policy from the Askew School at Florida
State University. His research interests
include public budgeting and financial
management, local government institutions,
and urban studies. His work has been
published and is forthcoming in
Administration Review, American Review of
Public Administration, Public Administration
Quarterly, State and Local Government
Urban Studies
Abstract : This article examines levels of policing ser vices, focusing on an assessment of resources and their
measurement for municipalities. Two measures of policing levels assess the reliability of the findings across alternative
measurements. Social and institutional characteristics are explored to evaluate alternative explanations in policing
efforts. The article presents four decades of census data for municipalities in metropolitan areas. The central finding
is that unequal levels of policing are prevalent across American municipalities. An additional finding is that social
and institutional contexts affect policing, based on a pooled time-series analysis of municipal governments. Although
its main contribution is to local public economies research, the research also integrates the social and institutional
literatures to identify factors in the allocation of resources to policing .
Evidence for Practice
Development of institutional capacity can allow local governments to mitigate resource disparities in police
Municipal incorporation may provide unincorporated communities with independent, self-governing
capacity to extend police services.
Police services can be supported by cooperative programs, such as fiscal transfers among local governments.
State policy makers may design or extend programs of assistance to reduce resource disparities in police
Agustin Leon-Moreta
University of New Mexico
Social Context, Institutional Capacity, and Police Services:
A Local Public Economies Perspective
I nequality in policing is a defining public policy
challenge of our time (Ward and Menifield 2017 ).
Events in Ferguson, Dallas, and other cities
have raised the sense of urgency about the policing
programs of municipalities. Allegations of racial bias,
service disparities, and calls for equity motivate a
renewed interest in the performance of police services
(Charbonneau et al. 2009 ). Police services vary widely
across American municipalities in terms of spending
and staffing levels. The different levels of policing
seem to originate partly from differences in the
social context of communities. Nevertheless, levels of
municipal policing vary widely even after accounting
for social characteristics (Sharp 2006 ).
What explains differences in the level of municipal
policing? The significance of this research question,
for theory and practice, is primarily related to the
role that municipalities play in the delivery of
police services. By delivering policing, municipal
governments have a direct impact on the level and
outcomes of those services. In a broader context,
municipal policing is of importance because, in
the federal system, policing powers are delegated
to municipal governments. These governments
promote public safety primarily through their policing
programs; therefore, the level of resources allocated
to policing is a critical mechanism through which
municipalities shape outcomes of public safety.
Some municipalities provide low levels of policing;
other municipalities provide high levels of policing
(Census of Governments 2012). Whether to expand,
maintain, or scale back policing levels is a decision
of enduring importance for municipalities seeking to
adapt to social polarization. Therefore, this decision
is a central question for American governments
and their citizens. One lesson of the civil unrest in
American cities—past and recent—is that the social
environment influences the public demand for
policing, yet police units respond differently to that
The focal contribution of this article is an assessment
of levels of police resources, conceptualized as the
size of resources allocated to policing (Coe and
Wiesel 2001 ; Sharp 2006 ). In support of this
conceptualization, two working measurements—
police expenditure and staffing—are reported. While
they represent specific dimensions of resources, police

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