Patrol accounts for the biggest portion of police work in most police agencies. The terms “patrolling” and ”on patrol” generally refer to what officers do while not handling calls for service—officers do this mostly in patrol cars, but sometimes on foot, on bicycles, on horseback, or the like. While on patrol, officers may look for traffic violations, suspicious behavior, disorder, and unsafe conditions. They may also look for opportunities to interact with the public in casual or more formal situations. This is all considered patrolling.
The time that police officers spend handling calls for service is also considered part of patrol work. Officers on patrol respond to calls, take reports, quell disturbances, and so forth. The combination of these two sets of activities—patrolling and handling calls—occupy most of the time of patrol officers, who in turn represent most of the personnel in the typical police department. Thus, patrol is the main business of policing.
We closely associate the term ”patrol” with the police today. New police officers are usually assigned to patrol duties and are often called patrol officers. The largest unit in most police departments is the patrol division; in small police departments, everyone patrols. When we call for police assistance, whether for an emergency, to report a crime, to quiet a disturbance, or to request some type of routine service, a patrol officer is typically dispatched. When we encounter the police in that most ubiquitous of all enforcement situations, a traffic stop, it is usually an officer on patrol who has stopped us.
Patrol as Watching
Before the advent of two-way radios, police on patrol had one primary purpose— watching. It was (and is) expected that police on patrol will prevent some crime and disorder by their watchfulness. Also, they should effectively intervene when they discover law breaking in progress. In the middle ages, the military and quasi-military precursors of modern police patrolled Europe, watching for highway robbers. In England, the sheriff and his men patrolled on the lookout for those who poached game on lands owned by the king and other nobles. In the American South in the 1700s, slave patrols watched for runaway slaves. As urbanization took hold in the early 1800s and 1900s, night watchmen and later uniformed foot patrol officers watched for all kinds of crime and disorder in cities and towns.
Patrol as Waiting
Automobiles and two-way radios dramatically affected police patrol in the twentieth century. As more and more of the public got into cars, so did the police. Motorized police patrol was deemed necessary to pursue motorized criminals and to enforce traffic laws. Motorized patrol also came to be seen as more efficient than foot patrol, since a larger area could be watched by police in cars. Then, the addition of the two-way radio made it possible for personnel at police headquarters to contact patrol officers in the field and dispatch them to respond to citizen requests for assistance. The impact of these two basic technologies should not be underestimated. Before cars and radios, police response to emergencies and other crises was more like the fire department model—from the station. Officers on patrol were out on the streets watching, but they were not in continuous communication with headquarters.
As the twentieth century progressed, police patrol became more and more dependent on the car and the radio. The public learned to call the police whenever crime or disorder was suspected, and calls for police assistance increased steadily. Over time, that portion of the workload of patrol officers represented by call handling increased. By the 1970s, a second fundamental purpose of patrol had taken root—waiting. Many patrol officers came to see their jobs primarily as handling calls, and when they were not “on a call” they were waiting for one. As waiting joined watching as a purpose of patrol, and in some cases largely replaced it, patrol became a more reactive and passive activity.
Research on Patrol
Careful research on the practice and effectiveness of police patrol started slowly in the 1950s and began to flourish in the 1970s. Early findings focused primarily on the discovery that patrol officers exercised wide discretion when enforcing the law and maintaining order. It was found that police invoke the law much less often than they could, often preferring to handle situations informally. Police officer discretionary decisions about whether to enforce the law are affected by such factors as department policy, victim/complainant preferences, suspect demeanor, and the seriousness of the offense.
Research on the makeup of patrol officer workload indicates about a fifty-fifty split between time spent handling calls and time spent patrolling, although, of course, this varies widely between jurisdictions and across different shifts. Officers on the day shift handle relatively more routine crime reporting and public service duties, evening shift officers handle more disorders and disputes and crimes in progress, and night shift officers have less human interaction and focus more of their attention on the few businesses open during those hours and the security of the many businesses closed for the night.
Patrol workload is neither all crime fighting, as media portrayals might suggest, nor all mundane public service, as some early studies seemed to indicate.
The best studies have shown that patrol work combines a variety of crime control, order maintenance, traffic enforcement, and service duties and requests. Of these four commonly used categories, crime control seems to account for the largest portion of calls handled by the police as well as police encounters with citizens, and pure service accounts for the smallest portion. However, it must quickly be emphasized that most crime-related calls and encounters involve minor offenses, routine report taking, and no arrests (often because a suspect is never identified). Patrol officers are more likely to take enforcement actions, in the form or arrests or citations, in order maintenance and traffic situations than in crime-related situations.
A major issue in the 1970s was one-officer versus two-officer patrol cars. The conventional wisdom at the time was that two patrol officers per car were more effective because of the value of two sets of eyes watching and two sets of hands if something happened. Also, it was assumed that two officers in a patrol car were safer than one officer alone. Research found, though, that one-officer cars were as safe and as productive as two-officer cars. To this day, many officers still prefer two-officer patrol cars for the companionship and perceived safety advantages that they offer, but modern practice relies mainly on one-officer cars in the vast majority of agencies.
The seminal study of patrol effectiveness was the Kansas City Preventive Patrol Experiment, conducted by the Police Foundation and published in 1974. This experiment tested the impact of three levels of patrolling strength, ranging from no patrol to twice the normal level, in fifteen patrol beats during the course of a year. The results were surprising—there were no differences in victimization, reported crime, fear of crime, public perception of police presence, arrests, traffic accidents, or anything else that was measured. Police patrols (not all police presence, just regular patrols) were virtually eliminated from five beats for an entire year and nobody noticed. Similarly, patrols were doubled in five other beats and nobody noticed.
The internal and external validity of the Kansas City study have been debated for years by researchers, and its implications have been hotly debated by police practitioners. Regardless of the outcome of these debates, though, the theory and practice of police patrol have been changed forever. Few are willing to assume any longer that mere ”visibility” and “omnipresence” are sufficient patrol strategies for reducing crime or fear of crime. Many are willing to take a more strategic approach to patrol deployment and tactics, since it no longer seems absolutely necessary to assign a patrol car to every beat on every shift just to provide police visibility.
Two other significant research contributions affecting police patrol came along in the 1970s and early 1980s. First, studies of police response time revealed, much to everyone’s surprise, that immediate police response to reported crimes rarely leads to an arrest, nor is it the crucial factor in victim satisfaction. Immediate response rarely leads to arrests because the vast majority of crimes are property crimes reported after they have occurred—the suspect is long gone and the victim has no idea who did it. Moreover, victim satisfaction depends more on how empa-thetic and competent the officer is than merely on the rapidity of response. These findings had substantial practical implications precisely because, by the early 1980s, the primary purpose of police patrol had become one of waiting for calls and then responding rapidly.
The second major research contribution in the early 1980s was the rediscovery of foot patrol. Studies in Newark, New Jersey, and Flint, Michigan, each indicated that foot patrols might have some of the positive effects that had been found wanting in Kansas City when motorized patrol was tested. Both studies suggested that foot patrols make residents feel safer and enhance the public’s regard for the police. The Flint study also claimed that foot patrols reduced crime, but the Newark study did not. Still, in the aftermath of the Kansas City experiment, just finding that foot patrols had beneficial effects on fear of crime and attitudes toward police was enough to renew police interest in them.
Broken Windows and Community Policing
The rediscovery of foot patrol contributed to the development of the broken-windows thesis. In a nutshell, this thesis holds as follows: Foot patrol officers, as contrasted with motor patrol officers, are more likely to address minor crime and disorder problems on their beats, such as drunks, panhandlers, prostitutes, loud youths, and small-time drug dealers; when officers address these kinds of problems, residents notice, they feel safer, and they appreciate it; residents who feel safer and who have more confidence in the police are then more likely to assert informal social control, which makes the neighborhood even safer; reduced fear and enhanced safety encourages residents to remain in the neighborhood, spurs them to improve their properties, and attracts other residents and investors to the area; and a positive cycle of improvement continues. It should be emphasized that this broken-windows thesis is far from proven, but it has had a powerful impact on police strategies, crime prevention programming, and urban renewal over the past fifteen to twenty years.
The rediscovery of foot patrol also contributed directly to the rise of community policing. As a metaphor, foot patrol symbolized a police officer well known to neighborhood residents and working closely with them to address neighborhood problems, in contrast to the motorized patrol metaphor of an officer wearing reflector sunglasses darting into a neighborhood to enforce a law and then either disappearing or driving around staring at residents. This contrast had long been recognized and debated, of course, but prior to the several studies noted above, the police had been able to argue that motorized patrol and rapid response, though perhaps not warm and fuzzy, were effective and necessary. Research made these claims untenable and opened the door to a variety of strategic innovations, most notably community policing.
The practical impact of community policing on police patrol can be described in terms of purpose and workload. Instead of driving around in patrol cars watching and/or waiting, community policing officers are supposed to be working in partnership with neighborhood residents and other agencies to identify and solve specific local problems. This approach to patrol is more collaborative and more proactive than previous models. Naturally, these patrol officers still must handle reported crimes and other calls for assistance, but when not handling calls, they emphasize problem solving more than watching or waiting.
Another strategic direction that patrol has taken in the past twenty years is toward a more focused or directed approach. One might think of traditional motorized patrol as the mayonnaise approach—spread evenly over the entire jurisdiction. Directed patrol, by contrast, tries to apply patrol in a more focused manner to particular locations where crimes or other problems are occurring. Enhancements in crime analysis and crime mapping in recent years have made this approach more feasible.
Technology continues to affect police patrol. Officers now commonly have computers in their cars, through which they can check vehicle registrations, driving records, criminal records, warrant files, and a host of other databases in seconds. Technology has also affected police weaponry, police protective gear, audio and video taping of police-citizen encounters, night vision, evidence location and collection, handling of high-speed pursuits, and many other conditions and aspects of the patrol officer’s job.
Despite significant changes during the past century or two, the work of patrol officers remains very challenging and controversial. Most use-of-force incidents, including deadly force, involve patrol officers responding to calls or investigating suspicious situations. Most high-speed chases involve patrol officers. The current controversy in the United States surrounding so-called racial profiling or “driving-while-black” centers primarily on the practices of patrol officers in stopping and searching vehicles and pedestrians.
Police patrol officers are among the most powerful and visible point persons of our governmental apparatus. Police work, including patrol work, inherently entails the use of government authority to regulate and restrict peoples’ behavior. Most of us resent such restrictions when they are applied to us, and errors are bound to be made when using such authority. More seriously, perhaps, the institutions that exercise such authority are unlikely to avoid the prejudices that permeate the societies in which they operate. New technologies, and new strategies such as community policing, have some potential for reducing abuses of authority and preventing use-of-force tragedies, but it is unlikely that the necessity for split-second life-or-death decision making can ever be completely eliminated from police patrol work.