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Most Police Don’t Live In The Cities They Serve

In Ferguson, Missouri, where protests continue following the shooting of a teenager by a police officer this month, more than two-thirds of the civilian population is black. Only 11 percent of the police force is. The racial disparity is troubling enough on its own, but it’s also suggestive of another type of misrepresentation. Given Ferguson’s racial gap, it’s likely that many of its police officers live outside city limits.

If so, Ferguson would have something in common with most major American cities. In about two-thirds of the U.S. cities with the largest police forces, the majority of police officers commute to work from another town.

This statistic is intimately tied to the diversity of the police force: Black and Hispanic officers are considerably more likely to reside in the cities they police than white ones. In New York, for example, 62 percent of the police force resides within the five boroughs — a comparatively high figure. But there’s a stark racial divide. Seventy-seven percent of black New York police officers live in the city, and 76 percent of Hispanic ones do, but the same is true for only 45 percent of white officers.

This data comes from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Census Bureau, which together provide detail on the racial composition of government workers in large American cities. We were alerted to the data set by a Washington Post analysis of the racial demographics of each city’s police force. The census data also includes detail on how many police officers live in the cities where they serve.

On average, among the 75 U.S. cities with the largest police forces, 60 percent of police officers reside outside the city limits. (These figures exclude Honolulu, for which detailed data on residency was not available.) But the share varies radically from city to city. In Chicago, 88 percent of police officers live within the city boundaries — and in Philadelphia, 84 percent do. But only 23 percent do so in Los Angeles. Just 12 percent of Washington police live in the District — and only 7 percent of officers in Miami live within city limits.

These differences reflect a combination of three major factors: a city’s racial composition, whether it has a residency requirement for police and its geography.

On average among the 75 cities, 49 percent of black police officers and 47 percent of Hispanic officers live within the city limits. But just 35 percent of white police officers do. The disparity is starkest in cities with largely black populations. In Detroit, for example, 57 percent of black police officers live in the city but just 8 percent of white ones do. Memphis, Tennessee; Baltimore; Birmingham, Alabama; and Jackson, Mississippi — also majority black — likewise have large racial gaps in where their police officers live.

Cities may also vary in their residency requirements — for example, Los Angeles doesn’t require police to live in the city; Philadelphia used to require that its officers live within the city boundaries. Furthermore, such regulations are enforced to varying degrees. Whereas Boston ostensibly has a residency requirement for police, for example, it’s routinely flouted — and the Census Bureau data suggests that about half of Boston’s police officers live outside the city.

Geography also plays some role. Jacksonville, Florida, has more than 80 percent of its police officers living within the city limits. That may reflect its sprawling boundaries; the city proper has an unusually high share of the metro area’s population. By contrast, the city of Atlanta, which is small compared with metro Atlanta’s population, has just 14 percent of its police force living in town.


The city of St. Louis, near Ferguson, has a residency requirement with an out clause. There, police are allowed to move outside the city after seven years on the force. White police officers have been more likely to take advantage of the provision; 46 percent of them live outside St. Louis, whereas 32 percent of its black ones do.

There isn’t detailed data available on Ferguson, whose population is too small to have required detailed reporting to the EEOC. But in our effort to spot-check the census data, we discovered that many communities with a strict police residency requirement have an active debate about whether to relax the requirement — while nearly every town without one is arguing about whether to impose one. Ferguson is no outlier in this regard, but the events there may shape the debates for years to come.

Further details on these 75 cities are included in the searchable table below (asterisks mean there were fewer than 100 officers in the category) and can be found on GitHub.

NOTE TO READERS (Aug. 21, 1:39 p.m.): The Census Bureau numbers we are using are potentially going to differ from other counts for three reasons:

  1. The census category for police officers also includes sheriffs, transit police and others who might not be under the same jurisdiction as a city’s police department proper. The census category won’t include private security officers.
  2. The census data is estimated from 2006 to 2010; police forces may have changed in size since then.
  3. There is always a margin of error in census numbers; they are estimates, not complete counts.

CORRECTION (Aug. 20, 5:07 p.m.): A previous version of this article said Philadelphia police officers are currently required to live within city limits. They are not.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.