Policing | Section 4.1

Fundamentals of Policing by Adam J. McKee

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Patrol is often called the “backbone” of the police department, and for good reason.  Patrol consumes most of the average police department’s resources. The basic philosophy and strategy of preventive patrol has not changed from Peel’s time:  the patrol officer makes circuits through a specified area, often called a beat.  During Peel’s time, most patrols were done on foot, with the occasional horse patrol.  Technology ushered in the automobile, and modern police forces take full advantage of the benefits offered by cars.  The most important of these advantages is the area that a single officer can cover. Automobile patrol officers can cover much wider beat areas than officers on foot.  The bottom line is that because an officer in a car can cover a much wider geographic area, departments need fewer officers. This translates into huge savings. Automobile patrol is much cheaper than foot patrol.

Important Functions of Patrol

The mission of Patrol is defined by each department, so there will be many variations.  There are, however, some nearly universal goals:

  1. crime prevention and deterrence
  2. apprehension of offenders
  3. creation of a sense of security and satisfaction
  4. provision of non-crime-related services
  5. traffic control
  6. Identifying and solving community problems with respect to crime and disorder

Nearly all specialized groups within police departments grew out of the patrol division.  Patrol has the primary responsibility of preventing and resolving crimes in communities. When people talk about the “thin blue line” that protects Americans against crime, they are most often talking about patrol activities.  When a terrorized citizen calls 911, it is patrol that provides a rapid emergency response. Because of the nature of patrol work, patrol officers are the public face of all police departments. Public opinions about the police are largely determined by the quality of interactions with patrol officers.

The basic idea of patrol is as simple as it is old:  a visible presence will deter would-be offenders. However, the development of the radio and the telephone changed the police patrol tactics from proactive to reactive. With the development of community policing, the police are expected to be aware of what is going on in their beats. This includes a heightened awareness regarding terrorism and terrorist acts. The police should become target-oriented and utilize event analysis.

Because of the complex nature of “dealing with calls,” there is a large amount of variability in times spent on calls for service.  Patrol officers usually have considerable discretion in how much time they spend on each call for service. Requests for services often can be handled in only a couple of minutes (such as providing traffic directions), and how officers choose to deal with these nonemergency situations plays a large role in public attitudes toward police.  Researchers have found that, on average, officers spend around 20 minutes on a call. Factors surrounding the incident, however, results in much variability in these times. Such factors as the seriousness of the crime (and thus the complexity of the investigation) also impact the amount of time spent on calls. Very fast handling of some situations by patrol officers can result in a backlash of public sentiment when citizens feel that officers did not pay adequate attention to their problems.

The effectiveness of patrol operations is usually judged by three major functions.  These include answering calls for service, deterring crime by a highly visible police presence, and investigating suspicious circumstances.  Of these three major functions of patrol, crime deterrence is the most controversial. The historical assumption, stemming from Peel’s day, was that a highly visible officer patrolling a beat would serve as a deterrent to would-be criminals.  Research evidence since the 1970s has supported the idea that random preventive patrol has very little if any impact on crime.

Characteristics of Successful Patrol Officers

Patrol officers are faced with a unique set of tasks that makes the job difficult and not suited to all people.  Much of the time, patrol work is monotonous and boring. That monotony is sometimes punctuated by dangerous situations that require constant vigilance.

Officers must be keenly aware of many aspects of their patrol beats.  They must have an intimate knowledge of the geography of the area, including a dizzying array of street and landmark names.  They must also have a knowledge of the social and economic forces working in the area.

Officers must be effective problem solvers, working with a wide array of public problems that require rapid resolution.  Accidents, disasters, public disorder, and crime all require that patrol officers have “street sense” in dealing with disparate problems. 

Officers must have the ability to assess and respond to potentially dangerous situations.  Public scrutiny of police conduct is at all-time high, and media coverage seems to keep growing.  The constant potential need to make a use of force decision weighs heavily on the minds of patrol officers across the United States.  Officers are keenly aware that a poor assessment of a situation or an inappropriate response can be disastrous.

Officers must exercise wisdom and judgment in the use of discretion, often in what are, for citizens, life-altering circumstances.  Officers must balance the needs of justice, public safety, civil rights, and public order when making decisions, such as whether to warn, cite, or arrest a suspect.

Good patrol officers will demonstrate a constant awareness of the circumstances around them, even while dealing with other tasks.  Good officers will show an ability to identify and articulate circumstances that signal problems or criminal activity.

Good patrol officers must maintain a high level of physical conditioning, despite hours and hours of sitting behind the wheel of a patrol vehicle.  They must focus on all aspects of physical conditioning, including manual dexterity, strength, and endurance. Officers are required to master many complex psychomotor skills, including pursuit driving, shooting under less than ideal conditions, executing self-defense techniques, and executing apprehension techniques.

Good patrol officers must demonstrate good communication skills in a variety of forms.  Officers must communicate clearly in conversations with diverse people, some of whom will speak English as a second language.  Officers must have a firm command of written communication skills, as reports and legal documents are the foundations of good police work.

Good patrol officers will have the ability to communication and persuade in extremely diverse social situations.  Police officers will encounter model citizens, children, and senior citizens just as often as they will encounter hardened criminals.  Most citizens will fall somewhere along the continuum of social desirability, and officers must be able to deal with all people effectively.  An appreciation for cultural diversity, and training on how to deal with special populations (such as the mentally ill) are necessary for doing patrol work in modern departments and communities that are dedicated to inclusion and appreciation for diversity.

Successful patrol officers must have “thick skin.”  Police officers are agents of the states and servants of the people.  As such, they are subject to many different kinds of abuse that everyday citizens would not tolerate.  Verbal tirades that most people would consider “fighting words” are a political right when aimed at a police officer by citizens exercising their free speech rights.  Good officers will demonstrate an ability to keep cool, calm, and collected, using force only when and to the degree allowed by law and dictated by legitimate criminal justice purposes.  Good officers manage to strike a balance between a professional, self-assured presence and appearing as officious, self-important, and “cocky.”

Good officers demonstrate an ability to restore (or establish) a peaceful equilibrium among social groups.  Persuasive communications skills allow the officer to diffuse tense situations that constitute disorder, but have not risen to the level of serious crime.

Good officers will possess well-developed interview and interrogation skills.  They will demonstrate an ability to skillfully question victims, suspects, and witnesses.

Good patrol officers must demonstrate leadership, and have the ability to take control of complex and dangerous situations.         

The Kansas City Preventive Patrol Experiment

In the 1970s, criminal justice researchers began to question the underlying assumption of preventive patrol.  They designed an experiment to find out of preventive patrol reduced crime and made citizens feel safe from crime.  They also wondered about patrol strength. In other words, did the number of officers on patrol in a given area have an impact on both actual crime and citizens’ perceptions of crime?

The researchers’ experiment was conducted in conjunction with the Kansas City, Missouri police department.  The department divided the city’s 15 beat areas into 3 groups. As with any good experiment, the experimenters needed a control group.  To serve this purpose, one cluster of 5 beats made no changes in the amount of patrol officers working in the area. In a second area, the police withdrew all preventive patrol and served a completely reactive role.  They entered this “reactive” area only when calls for service were received. In the third area, they raised preventive patrol to four times the normal level. If the conventional wisdom about the effectiveness of preventive patrol held true, then the experimenters should observe a higher crime rate in the reactive area, no change in the crime rate in the control area, and a drop in the intensified patrol area.

What the researchers found staggered the world of policing:  There was almost no difference in actual crime or citizens fear of crime.  Citizen’s opinions about how good a job the police were doing did not change.  It seemed that law-abiding citizens and criminals alike simply did not notice the changes.  As one would expect, this caused a flurry of opinions to come out regarding the interpretation of these findings. 

Some argued that the findings must be wrong, and that preventive patrol was and always had been a good thing.  Others argued that patrol was just a bad idea and that the police should focus on different things. Many stood the middle ground, focusing on making patrol more effective by changing the way it was done.  One of the few things that almost all commentators agreed on was that just pouring more officers out on the street would have little impact on crime. What was needed was fundamental change.

The Proactive Paradigm Shift

While it the evidence seems to indicate that the mere presence of uniformed officers in an area does little to deter crime, the same cannot be said of more aggressive patrol strategies.  Proactive patrol operations shift from random to targeted. Specific types of offenders, specific places, and specific types of victims can be considered. Myriad tactics fall under this general philosophy.  Undercover operations, the use of informants, using decoys, saturating problem areas, and frequent patrols of “hot spots” are just a few examples.

An important argument in how to better utilize patrol is that random patrols do not work well because crime is not a random phenomenon.  While it may seem fair, giving every neighborhood in a city an equal amount of police time and resources is horribly inefficient. A smarter use of resources is to concentrate police resources in high crime areas, and limit resources in areas that experience very little crime.  Research evidence suggests that this strategy does indeed have a positive impact on crime. Researchers found that the 911 system received a heavy amount of calls for service from a small number of locations. Brief periods of intensive patrolling in those high crime areas effectively reduced robberies and other crimes.

Other strategies, such as those used in the San Diego Field Interrogation Study, have shown that aggressively interrogating suspicious persons can lead to a reduction in both violent crime and disorder.  The New York City Street Crimes Unit has had success using decoys to apprehend repeat offenders. By having an undercover officer play a “perfect victim,” officers were able to dramatically increase arrests of muggers. 

It is worthy of note that not all calls for police services require immediate attention. Police response times may be important in emergency situations but meaningless in many other situations. The police were able to develop differential police response (DPR) to help reduce costs, improve effectiveness, and not affect the level of citizen satisfaction.  

Key Terms

References and Further Reading


Modification History

File Created:  08/15/2018

Last Modified:  06/14/2019

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

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