According the US Department of Justice  there are more than 800,000 full time sworn law enforcement officers in the US [link]. 2004 being the latest statistics I could find.
In 2004 there were more than 800,000 full-time sworn law enforcement officers in the United States
Type of agency
Number of agencies
Number of full-time
All State and local
Note: Special jurisdiction category includes both State-level and local-level agencies. Consolidated police-sheriffs are included under local police category. Agency counts exclude those operating on a part-time basis.
What these statistics don't show is that roughly half of the total are employed by departments of less than 100 officers, or that only about half of the state and local sworn officers are in positions where they respond to calls for service [LEMAS2000].
Also from LEMAS2000, the latest published survey:
- On average, larger municipal police departments employed 22 full-time sworn personnel per 10,000 residents.
- County police departments and sheriffs' offices employed an average of 11 and 10 officers per 10,000 residents, respectively.
- State law enforcement agencies employed an average of 2 officers per 10,000 residents.
A breakdown of personnel is found on page 16 should curiosity inspire a slightly more informative breakdown. When considering police officers one must account for the twenty-four hour nature of law enforcement as well as days off.
When I speak about our LEOs (Law Enforcement Officers) during a time of severe pandemic influenza I assume operations at an emergency response footing, i.e., 12 hours on – 12 hours off, no days off, shift staffing. But even with that it's easy to see there are not a lot of spare LEOs on average to go around.
Furthermore, as a general rule most departments have sworn officers unfit to perform "street duty", whether due to advancing age, declining health, or service related injury. Under normal operations they fill the slots that don't require physical aptitude but still need to be filled. During an emergency being a "sworn officer" does not equal "being deployable on the streets" since potential physical demands will be even higher than they are normally.
Additionally, one only need do an internet search for "police staffing shortages" to get a glimpse of the depth and breadth of the problem of recruitment and retention departments all across the US are facing (examples: here and here, contrarian: here).
You may be asking yourself Why would all of this relative minutia be of interest to someone other than a "numbers kinda gal"? Simply: When we need or want a police response, we need or want one.
During an influenza pandemic planning assumptions focus on 30 – 50% staffing shortages across all sectors and segments of society due to illness, family illness, or fear of infection. There is no reason to assume the statistic will be much different for our police. Conversely, there is reason to believe it may be worse, my more thorough analysis of the underlying issues can be found here.
A severe pandemic defined by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as 30% of the population falling ill and 2% or more of those having fatal outcomes. Should the world experience a severe influenza pandemic our Law Enforcement agencies will be tasked with not only their traditional roles, but new ones as well, driven by the health emergency.
The prospect of responding during a time of civil crisis with a chronically understaffed force, suffering the same (or worse) attrition as the general workforce, is one I find disturbing. Our police have a fiduciary responsibility to the community they serve, but that community has a reciprocal responsibility to give them the means to accomplish theirs.
Lest you view me as an overwrought alarmist here is a snip from The role of Law Enforcement in Public Health Emergencies (2006) [pdf link], a joint effort of The U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs' Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) and the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF):
In a large-scale incident, such as a pandemic, law enforcement resources will quickly become overwhelmed, and law enforcement officials will have to balance their resources and efforts between these new responsibilities and everyday service demands. All of this may have to be accomplished with a greatly diminished workforce, as officers and their families may become infected and ill, and some personnel may determine that the risk of continuing to report to work is just too great to themselves or their families. A department's ability to respond effectively to any emergency—public health or otherwise—greatly depends on its preparedness, and this is directly linked to the law enforcement agency's planning and its partnerships. [Emphasis added]
One of those "partners" is the public, and the public should demand that even during a pandemic all means to ensure an effective police response are in place since only the pre-pandemic phase affords the opportunity to properly prepare – during is too late, way too late. Because, after all, when we need or want a police response we need or want that response, and excuses for inability to provide one are not only hollow but also carry potentially human life price tags.
Of course as the mother of a patrol officer for a small city, I have a very selfish reason to advocate for PanFlu prep by our law enforcement agencies: my only child's ability to perform his fiduciary responsibility without it costing him life or limb unnecessarily. That means he must be adequately supplied with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), such as disposable infectious disease barriers (masks, rubber gloves) and copious amounts of alcohol based sanitation gels to last the length of the pandemic. It also means that his department must not assume more roles than they can perform, and have adequate staff to perform those that they will perform.
I would love to be able to report that his department meets those criteria, unfortunately I cannot. Sadly, I don't anticipate ever being able to report their attaining those three items. So I would suggest that if/when a severe pandemic strikes you not call your local police… you wouldn't want to hear their excuses and the phone might just go unanswered anyway.