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The State of American Law Enforcement - Working on the Front Lines

The patrol officer is the backbone of American policing, but a lot of agencies don’t want to admit it.

July 01, 2008  |  by - Also by this author


To say that new millennium patrol work is different than it was just a decade ago is understating the case. It has evolved and is mutating at an accelerated rate. Big Brother is ubiquitous and, thanks to modern technology, bean counters can have a field day tracking everything from an officer's number of force incidents to arrest rates to complaints generated per contact.

More remote monitoring of officers is in the offing. While its feasibility is in question, England wants every single one of its 31,000 Metropolitan police officers microchipped so top brass can monitor their movements.

Caught in the middle of all this is the patrol officer.

Already accustomed to the untenable prospects of trying to appease not one or two masters but multiple sovereigns, the patrol officer is increasingly challenged to successfully navigate his or her way through a maze of social, professional, political, technological, and legal obstacles.

Patrol officers are expected to keep abreast of recent case decisions via the Internet, but maximize their visibility in the field.

Patrol officers are expected to make arrests and issue citations, but never get a complaint and be well rested and punctual for court in the morning.

And at some point in his or her various travels, the patrol officer will ask a question that pertains equally well to the task at hand and his or her career in law enforcement: Just how the hell did I get here, and where am I going?

From the first time police officers went on patrol to keep peace in their communities, there has been an expectation that their presence serves as a deterrent to crime. Indeed in America, whether embodied by the beat cop or the patrol car, the notion of preventative patrol prevailed throughout much of the 20th century.

But the 1970s saw a dramatic shift in operating philosophies, with the Kansas City Preventative Patrol Experiment finding that the anticipated benefits of high profile patrolling—crime interception, deterrence, and rapid response times—were not being realized. This, coupled with a San Diego-based study by the Police Foundation that concluded that one-man cars were more cost effective than two-man cars, provided partial justification for many law enforcement agencies to hire fewer officers and reduce the number of two-man cars they deployed. Subsequently, today's cops have been expected not only to do more with less, but on their own.

Short Changed

A good argument could be made that the costs of such economic savings have been borne elsewhere, namely in the safety of police officers. For while some studies have convincingly argued that one-person patrol cars incur a lower ratio of officer-involved uses of force than two-officer cars, it isn't exactly counter intuitive to see the virtues of having a partner when the bad stuff hits the fan.

Number crunching does not in and of itself resolve the matter. In examining the thousands of law enforcement officers assaulted during 2006, the U.S. Department of Labor found that an overwhelming number were assigned to single-officer vehicle patrols. But without hard data on the ratio of two-man cars to one-man cars being deployed nationally, law enforcement hasn't equipped itself with a means of validating its 35-year assumptions, or indicting them.

Nonetheless, while some officers prefer to work alone, many do not and openly lament the seeming lack of priority given to patrol. Not only do they question the wisdom of fielding one-officer cars but also of diverting resources to crime prevention units and after-hours basketball programs. Often, the patrol officer sees such programs as—at best—extraneous to law enforcement's primary mission and probably best maintained by other agencies such as the Department of Parks and Recreation.

If patrol personnel are skeptical of their place in the law enforcement hierarchy, it is understandable. For while many a department still pays lip service to patrol constituting the backbone of law enforcement, empirical observations may lead one to conclude otherwise.

For larger agencies, it is commonly accepted that the road to promotion is not via patrol, but through coveted positions along the administrative or investigative path. That some of these administrative positions—such as Internal Affairs—are often concerned with improprieties allegedly committed on the patrol side, only adds to the resentment.

Reallocating Resources

But smart cops believe that the way to fight crime is by getting back to basics. And in 1999, that's just what Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward Norris did.

Despite some of the more unsavory allegations about Norris' conduct in Baltimore, he knew what he was doing with his patrol resources. Norris realized very quickly that impacting crime in his jurisdiction would mean more than indulging the usual postmortem investigatory efforts. It would mean hitting criminals before they hit others. Norris' approach would be a radical one: The former NYPD cop redeployed personnel from specialized units back to patrol cars.

Norris recommitted officers to patrol with orders to be proactive, knowing that it would effectively be putting them in harm's way. To enhance their safety and likelihood for success, he went against conventional wisdom and lobbied hard for two-officer cars—and got them. Even when not entirely successful in getting what he asked for, Norris turned the situation to his advantage. Told that the more masculine color scheme he wanted on his patrol cars would be limited to a select few, Norris made a point of rewarding only the hardest working patrol cops with them.

And recognition for the patrol officer went beyond smartly painted vehicles. When Patrol Officer Tony Barksdale broke up a major drug ring—a task normally relegated to specialized narcotics crews—he was called into Norris' office. Knowing that he'd operated outside of the usual patrol paradigm, Barksdale anticipated the worst. Instead, Norris gave Barksdale an on-the-spot promotion to Major, and put him in charge of a newly created unit that targeted the city's most violent offenders.

Such redistribution of resources and shifting of priorities to bolster patrol had dramatic success: Baltimore's homicide rate plummeted.

Across the country, the Riverdale (Utah) Police Department has historically maintained a very low crime rate relative to some of its surrounding agencies. Many of the criminals Riverdale does arrest openly acknowledge that they prefer committing crimes in other jurisdictions because they are less likely to be arrested.

Lt. James Ebert notes two factors that allow the Riverdale Police Department to enjoy the reputation it does. First, it places an emphasis on proactive policing. Second, with one of the highest police officers per capita ratios, the agency has the means to effectively carry out such missions.

"I don't think it's so much a difference in philosophy between law enforcement agencies, but of opportunity," explains Ebert. "We have the resources to be proactive. We maintain a sufficient number of police officers and our policing efforts are in part due to our officers' willingness to use their down time to go out and make things happen.

"The city has been very good in supporting our officers—they aren't taken for granted. They're continually educated as opposed to just getting in-house training, and the city makes a concerted effort to pay and reward the officers well, both with recognition and by offering incentives like education assistance. Because of this, we don't experience the burnout cycles that many agencies experience with their patrol officers, with officers becoming disappointed or cynical once they've got five to 10 years on the job," Ebert adds.

Tags: The State of American Law Enforcement, Patrol Morale, Patrol Resources, Officer Staffing, L.A. County Sheriff, Baltimore PD


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