FOOT PATROL (police)


It has been said that patrol is the ”backbone of policing, the central aspect of police operations, . . . the center of police activity” (Walker and Katz 2002, 87). There are three distinct functions ofpatrol: to deter crime, to make officers available for service, and to enhance the feelings of public safety. Foot patrol is but one method of patrol. It is characterized by officers making neighborhood rounds on foot. Like any other method of patrol, foot patrol has its drawbacks as well as its benefits: ”While extremely expensive and able to cover only a limited ground, foot patrol allows for enhanced police-community relations” (Walker and Katz 2002, 492).


Police departments use foot patrols primarily to (1) increase visibility of officers, (2) make greater contact with the community, (3) increase rapport with community members, (4) increase community policing, and (5) improve police officer job attachment and satisfaction (Walker and Katz 2002). Although motor vehicles have taken over much of modern life, many police departments across the country still rely on foot patrol officers to proactively reduce crime and improve relations with community members.

”While motorized patrol may have increased efficiency in terms of response time and area covered, several unintended and undesirable consequences also surfaced. With officers removed from the streets, informal contacts between officers and citizens were decreased” (Esbensen 1987, 45). However, with the increase of community policing and increased attention to the benefits of fostering informal contacts within a given community, some police departments have begun decreasing the number of officers assigned to mobile units and increasing the number of officers on foot patrol in select neighborhoods (Walker and Katz 2002). Certain departments employ officers whose primary function is foot patrol. Foot patrols allow officers to have a more approachable and welcoming presence within communities. In addition, foot patrol officers are often able to have better rapport with community members because they present a less threatening appearance than their mobile unit counterparts.

While a foot patrol officer can cover only a limited area, which in turn means that the cost of foot patrol is higher than vehicular patrol, such limitations can be offset by the gains in community relations. Moreover, depending on the area and the situation, sometimes foot patrol officers can respond more quickly to a scene than officers patrolling in vehicles.

Brief History

Between the 1920s and the 1950s, many departments converted from foot patrol to car patrol because car patrol was deemed more efficient. ”A patrol car can cover more area, pass each point more often, return to particular spots in an unpredictable manner if necessary, and respond quickly to calls for service” (Walker and Katz 2002, 93). However, as noted above, direct contact with citizens was lost by officers patrolling an area and/or community within the confines of a patrol car. As a result, officers were starting to be viewed as an occupying army, or at least not very approachable, as had been those officers patrolling on foot. In response to crises of strained police-community/citizen relations during the 1960s, many departments started restoring foot patrols within select neighborhoods. In addition, many community policing programs implemented foot patrols to increase the officers’ visibility and their ap-proachability by citizens (Walker and Katz 2002).

In the 1980s, a number of evaluations examined foot patrols and found that though increased foot patrols did not reduce crime, they did increase feelings of safety (Walker and Katz 2002). In addition, these positive feelings were generalized to the whole department, not just assigned to the individual foot patrol officers in a community. Therefore, by increasing foot patrols and subsequently relationships between police and citizens, departments can increase knowledge about the specific roles of officers and possibly also reduce fear of crime.

Community Relations

The increase in the amount of motor patrols has lead to a decrease in interaction between citizens and police officers. ”Decreased interaction between police and citizens has led not only to deterioration of relations but also to an inaccurate and unrealistic assessment of the police role” (Esbensen 1987, 46). This deterioration of relations not only may increase inaccurate views of police and their roles but may also increase fear of crime and/or victimization.

In the era of community policing, such trends may have begun to change: ”In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in programs that attempt to place the police and the community in greater harmony and interaction”. With the advent of community policing, many departments started increasing foot patrols to increase officer and citizen interactions and improve community relations. Although not ideal in every circumstance or community, foot patrols do appear to increase positive interaction between officers and citizens and improve community relations when compared to traditional motor patrols.

Even though motor patrols are often able to get to certain areas faster than foot patrols and are able to cover a larger area, officers on motor patrol often have less contact with community members and often do not have as good a relationship with the public as do foot patrol officers. Foot patrol officers, because of their heavy interaction with the public, are able to learn more about their community, their beat, and those who reside within it, thereby increasing public satisfaction with the police and encouraging community policing and better community-police relations.

An increased relationship between citizens and police may foster increased cooperation of citizens and increased crime reporting. Citizens who feel alienated or who have a negative image of police officers are less likely to report crimes to departments and less likely to offer tips when asked (Esbensen 1987). By increasing foot patrols and increasing a positive image of police and police-community relations, there is a higher likelihood that citizens will report crimes that occur and offer tips on unsolved crimes, thus helping police to make communities safer and solve crimes more often and/or more quickly.


Another positive result of initiating foot patrol units, besides the increase in police-community relations, is that they may help to reduce crime. Although ”this notion of high visibility being positively correlated with lower crime rates . . . remains suspect at best” (Esbensen 1987, 48), increased officer visibility may prevent certain crimes from occurring, reduce rates of crime, or, as noted in a study cited above, reduce fear of crime. Officers may be able to be more proactive in crime fighting because their knowledge of the community they serve allows them to better recognize when something is ”not right.” When a community and its members are better known by officers, it is clearer to officers when there is something suspicious occurring that demands their attention.

For example, if in a certain neighborhood a shopkeeper always turns out the lights and goes home at 7 p.m., an officer who knows the area will know that something is amiss if at 7:45 the officer walks by the shop and sees lights on. Whereas an officer who does not know the area or the shopkeeper may not think anything is wrong and potentially miss a crime that is in progress or just completed. Yet, ”while previous evaluations of foot patrol programs have found support for improved community relations resulting from foot patrols, the findings have been inconsistent regarding any reduction in crime associated with foot patrols” (Esbensen 1987, 48).

Despite the fact that motor patrol officers can respond to calls for service more quickly than their foot patrol counterparts, the real effectiveness of foot patrols should not be measured in response time or area covered but in citizen perceptions of the police, police knowledge of the community and its residents, and citizen satisfaction with the police. ”Foot patrol officers are involved with the public on a much more proactive basis than motor patrol officers” (Payne and Trojanowicz 1985, 24). Foot patrol officers, although they have many of the same duties as motor patrol officers and engage in traditional patrol activities, are generally more involved with and interact more frequently and positively with the public. Such information exchanges and nonadversarial situations make foot patrols ideal for community policing.

However, motor patrols still are faster than foot patrols in responding to serious situations, and the automobile has the ability to cover a larger area than a foot patrol. Therefore, foot patrols will never take over contemporary policing but can be of added value to departments by supplementing motor patrols with specialized foot patrol officers to increase community relations, improve officer job satisfaction and possibly effectiveness, decrease fear of crime, and perhaps also decrease victimization by allowing officers to more proactively fight crime.

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