Determinants of police strength in Canadian cities: assessing the impact of minority threat.

AuthorRuddell, Rick


Despite the fact that the police are the primary mechanism of formal social control, there are several unanswered questions about how they are organized and deployed and whether their activities are consistent with Canadian public and political values (Murphy 1999). In the past decade there has been growing attention paid to the political and socioeconomic factors that influence how many officers are "on the streets." This number is known as police strength and is typically defined either as the ratio of officers to residents or as law enforcement spending (Maguire and Schulte-Murray 2001). In examining police strength, there is also interest in how these officers are deployed, and these explanations typically consider operational efficiency, effectiveness, and public safety (Cordner 2011; Eitle and Monahan 2009; Fritsch, Liederbach, and Taylor 2009; Lithopoulos and Rigakos 2005; Robertson 2012). The present study examines the first question, and more specifically, whether the minority threat hypothesis (also called racial threat or racial conflict) can help us better understand policing in Canada's largest urban areas. Identifying the determinants of police strength will serve as a foundation for subsequent research.

Theories explaining the use of formal social control have historically drawn upon conflict perspectives that proposed that powerful social groups used criminal and juvenile justice systems to maintain their privileged social arrangements. Empirical examination of these relationships often focused on economic conditions, such as inequality or the effects of market instability on the use of coercive social control (e.g., police strength and imprisonment). Interest in those perspectives has waned in recent years in favour of the minority threat proposition, in part because it provides an additional explanation for the disproportionate involvement of members of minority groups in criminal and youth justice systems (Blalock 1967; Blumer 1958; Jackson 1989; Liska 1992).

The minority threat proposition extends economic conflict theories by drawing attention to the size of subordinate populations and to the possible influence of their presence on the use of formal social control. It has been proposed that as these populations grow, so does their desire for political and economic influence, and this threatens the status quo. It is also possible that increases in the size of certain subordinate populations (e.g., blacks in the United States, immigrants in Europe, or Canadian Aboriginal peoples or African Canadians) feed into negative stereotypes associated with public fear. In response to those threats--whether they are real or imagined--members of the dominant population lobby for policies that increase levels of coercive social control to manage these groups. Cross-national research, for example, has shown that increased population heterogeneity is associated with support for punitive criminal justice policies and practices (Ousey and Unnever 2012; Unnever and Cullen 2010).

To date, most studies examining the relationships between minority threat and different indicators of police strength have focused on the United States. These studies have typically demonstrated that the total visible minority population rarely exerts a significant influence on police strength or spending. Several subordinate groups within that population, however, are positively associated with different indicators of police strength. Most investigators have reported that as the size of the black population in American jurisdictions increases, so does the number of police officers or law enforcement spending (Kane 2003; Kent and Jacobs 2005; Ruddell and Thomas 2010; Sever 2001; Stucky 2005; Zhao, Ren, and Lovrich 2012). Researchers examining the relationships between the Latino population and different indicators of police strength have reported less consistent results (Holmes, Smith, Freng, and Munoz 2008; Ruddell and Thomas 2010; Sever 2001; Stucky 2005; Zhao et al. 2012).

While the minority threat proposition has been validated in numerous US studies of police strength, the key question in this research is whether a similar pattern exists in Canada. Despite the fact that there are considerable historical, cultural, economic, and political differences between the two nations--as well as different social welfare arrangements that might moderate punitive policies--there is a significant over-representation of minority populations in Canadian youth and criminal justice systems, which ultimately translates into higher rates of imprisonment for members of these groups (Perreault 2014a; Perreault 2014b). Given those outcomes, it is plausible that similar forces may be at work in Canada.

Bloemraad (2011: 1139) noted that "the rate of change in the number, proportion, composition, and location of immigrants in the United States has likely fed into feelings of threat and negative reactions to immigration among some Americans." A key difference between the two nations in respect to minority populations is that the proportion of foreign born residents is much higher in Canada than in the United States (20.6% compared to 12.8% (1)). Moreover, whereas over one-half of the foreign born US residents emigrated from Latin America (53%), over three-quarters of Canadian foreign born residents were Asian (41%) or European (36%) in 2006 (Bloemraad 2011: 1141). Not only do these immigrant populations differ between the two nations in respect to place of origin, but most new Canadians are economic migrants, admitted to the country for their potential contributions to the economy (e.g., having specialized skills or higher education). Once they are admitted to Canada, Black (2011: 1176) noted, there is a more encouraging environment for members of these groups to participate politically. These observations suggest that immigrant populations in Canada are more economically and politically involved than their American counterparts. If the minority threat proposition is valid, those factors should increase the threat posed to the status quo.

Police are considered to be the gatekeepers of the justice system (Fritsch et al. 2009). Thus, deploying higher numbers of officers in jurisdictions with a greater proportion of minority residents may result in differential treatment (Fitzgerald and Carrington 2011; Satzewich and Shaffir 2009), including more arrests (Eitle and Monahan 2009; Parker, Stults, and Rice 2005; Stolzenberg, D'Alessio, and Eitle 2004). Consequently, it is possible that these policing arrangements set the stage for minority overrepresentation in justice systems. Satzewich and Shaffir (2009) have described the racial profiling of minority Canadians by the police, and several scholars argue that the over-policing of these groups occurs (Comack 2012; Tanovich 2006; Tator and Henry 2006).

The claim that members of minority groups are over-policed is troubling, given Canada's growing population heterogeneity. The results of the 2011 Census revealed that 19.1% of respondents had self-declared as members of visible minority groups (Statistics Canada 2013a), which was up from 11.2% of the population in 1996 (Statistics Canada 2008a: 5). Moreover, Statistics Canada (2008a: 5) also reported that "in 2006, 95.9% of the visible minority population lived in a census metropolitan area, compared with 68.1 % of the general population." There are also growing numbers of Aboriginal people in urban areas. Statistics Canada (2008b: 6) reported that persons with an Aboriginal identity "accounted for almost 4 percent of the population of Canada," and that 54% of them resided in urban areas. (2) In 2011, Aboriginal populations accounted for 4.3% of the population (Statistics Canada 2013b), and altogether, almost one in four Canadians (23.4%) was a member of a visible minority group or had self-reported having an Aboriginal identity. These populations disproportionately lived in urban areas, and if the minority threat hypothesis is valid, it is likely to be evident in these cities.

Expanding beyond the US case, researchers are applying the minority threat proposition to other nations. Investigators have found a positive association between indicators of minority threat and police strength in Germany (Tepe and Vanhuysse 2012) and law enforcement spending in Spain (Guillamon, Bastida, and Benito 2013), although both of those studies defined minority sub-populations by their immigration rather than their ethnocultural status. Given the disproportionate involvement of different minority groups in Canadian criminal and youth justice systems, the minority threat proposition may provide a useful framework from which to examine the relationships between policing and subordinate populations. To better understand these relationships, this study reports the results of an examination of police strength and spending in Canada's largest cities, using six indicators of population heterogeneity, controlling for crime, political, and socio-economic conditions. The sections that follow provide an overview of the theoretical approaches used to explain variation in police strength, describe the data and methodological strategies used in the analyses, and then discuss the implications of the present research for the study of formal social control.

Understanding police strength

Hutchins (2014:3) reported that there were 69,272 active police officers on 15 May 2013, or 1.97 officers per 1,000 Canadian residents, which is comparable to many common law nations although less than in many European Union nations (Eurostat 2014). Within Canada's national average, there is considerable variation between and within the provinces and territories. In terms of census metropolitan areas (CMA), Hutchins (2014: 25-26) reported that there were 1.11 officers per 1,000 Moncton residents, whereas there were 1.89 officers for every 1,000 Winnipeg residents. The ratio of officers to...

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