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Lone-Officer Patrols: Going Solo

More and more officers work their entire shift alone, only calling for backup when things really go South.

March 28, 2011  |  by - Also by this author

How many 12-year-olds can identify their future career? Jillian Smith could. From the time she participated in her school's sixth grade DARE program, Smith knew that her calling was law enforcement.

As she matured, Smith didn't deviate from that goal, eventually earning her criminology degree from the University of Texas at Arlington in 2009 before graduating from the Arlington Police Academy the following September.

Smith was dispatched to a domestic violence report call last December. Only two weeks off patrol training, the young Arlington officer was in Kimberly Carter's apartment taking a criminal report when authorities say Carter's ex-boyfriend, Barnes Samuel Nettles, burst inside the location with a gun.

Nettles began firing, ultimately killing Carter before taking his own life.

But the first to die that night was Smith, who'd heroically positioned herself between Carter's 11-year-old daughter and Nettles' bullet.

No Easy Answers

Smith was one of three victims that night, and she died without backup. Might the presence of a second officer have given Nettles second thoughts about opening fire, or at least mitigated the number of lives lost? Or would there have been a second officer's name added to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial? We don't know the answer.

But consider this: Nettles was no stranger to law enforcement. A convicted sex offender, he had just the previous September been arrested for assaulting Carter's sister during an incident where he'd also attempted to choke their mother and throw the woman over an upstairs railing. Besides possessing an arrest history of violent offenses-including second-degree rape of a child, with a subsequent conviction—the felon had made numerous threats against Carter's life.

Given this backdrop and that the call for service was a domestic violence report—a call recognized as one of the profession's most dangerous—you might think that law enforcement administrators would want to reconsider the practice of deploying single officer responses to such incidents.

Some in the public are asking local police brass to end single officer response to such incidents.

"Why did you send her in alone?" asked a reader in the Arlington Star-Telegram's online forum. Other readers expressed a willingness to pay higher taxes to field two-officer cars if it improved officer and citizen safety.

Arlington Police Chief Theron Bowman has already hinted that some changes may be forthcoming. "We'll look at what happened and see what lessons there are to be learned," Bowman declared in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, emphasizing that the department's current policy had been adhered to on the night of the shooting.

But perhaps a bigger question looms: To what extent should law enforcement be fielding single units at all?

Saving Money

The shooting deaths of four California Highway Patrol officers in the 1970 Newhall Incident portended a four-year period of escalating violence against law enforcement, culminating with a record 279 officers killed in 1974. Besides a growing emphasis on officer safety practices, the decade also saw—perhaps counterintuitively—fewer two-officer patrol units.

Regional justifications for shifts in deployment varied, but its primary underpinning was an economic recession. Caught between diminishing tax revenues and citizen demand for greater police protection, law enforcement leveraged the challenge onto the backs of its patrol personnel.

By splitting two-officer units into separate cars, police agencies were able to effectively double the area of patrol coverage. Also, the sight of more police cars on patrol translated into the public consciousness as one of heightened police presence.

Some officers expressed concerns that their own safety was taking a backseat. To allay such suspicions, administrators inevitably pointed to studies conducted in San Diego, Kansas City, and other cities that concluded such bifurcations did not result in any corresponding detriment to officer safety (questions as to whether or not such studies were undertaken with preordained findings in mind were deemed impertinent).

What was once a novel idea in cities with high crime rates has since become conventional wisdom: Single officer cars can be just as safe as two-officer units. One lieutenant postulated that single person cars were safer, as they prevented complacency. Morale and his credibility took a hit when gas prices soared and the same lieutenant set the theory aside so as to double up units and run fewer cars in a bid to cut the budget.

Comments (3)

Displaying 1 - 3 of 3

Sheriff Steven W. Stapp @ 3/28/2011 6:01 PM

This is a fear I have for my officers and myself... When I took office in 2004, Dade County (Missouri) had 6 full time county deputies, 2 part time deputies and myself to respond to calls. Now we have been cut down to 1 full time deputy, 3 part time and myself. So unfortunately my full time deputy and myself cover the week days and nights, with 3 part timers covering the weekends. We have tried to pass a tax for 3 years, but the economy has hit everyone hard here... Wish I had a good answer!

billie @ 4/12/2011 1:29 PM

dear god, all officers need backup, even in the most benign "seeming" calls. they all are all our saviours!

DaveSam25G @ 5/22/2011 10:32 PM

Lot’s of wisdom here, well researched and written this article, from all points of view!! I find this article extremely interesting and alarming as one of the Departments mentioned in this study is also the department where (Contact and Cover) came into play and works extremely well when applied - By Lt John Morrison and Sgt Steven Albrecht. Other factors to consider size of families (emotions) and the fact those other family members may also be en-route to the domestic violence scene with weapons or emotions. I feel more than 1 solo officer is best on this type call even with back-up responding unless you absolutely have to go in it’s prudent to have more eyes and ears. As distractions or seconds count! And never an easy answer or one size fits all!

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