Two-Officer Cars: The Buddy System

Two-officer units may cost a city more, but they provide many benefits that can save the lives of officers.

David Griffith 2017 Headshot

M Two Cops 1

His patrol car needed fuel. So Dep. Darren Goforth of the Harris County (Texas) Sheriff's Department did what he had done many other times during his law enforcement career. He selected a well-lit gas-and-go in what he considered a safe area of his jurisdiction and pulled up to the pump. But around 8:30 p.m. on the night of Friday Aug. 28, the Chevron on the corner of West and Telge road in a middle-class suburb northwest of Houston was anything but "safe."

While Goforth pumped gas into his patrol unit, a young man walked up behind him, pointed a handgun, and executed the 47-year-old father of two at point-blank range. He then stood over the fallen deputy and fired shot after shot into the man's lifeless body until he had emptied the magazine. Afterward, he walked to his truck and drove away.

The killing of Darren Goforth stunned the people of Harris County, much of the American public, and the law enforcement community. It also left people grasping for a motive. Many believed Goforth was murdered because of hateful anti-police rhetoric spewed on radical black podcasts and broadcast and Internet radio shows. Some in the public feared additional cowardly attacks on police and reacted by standing guard over officers who were pumping fuel in uniform. People ranging from combat vets to concealed carry permit holders to girl scouts would approach officers and let them know: "I'm watching out for you."

Certainly such gestures of support were appreciated by the law enforcement community. But they also left many in law enforcement wondering why officers were being placed in the position of having to rely on civilians to have their backs in vulnerable moments. Some called for more two-officer patrol units.

Calls for that change in officer deployment accelerated after two non-fatal ambushes of Las Vegas Metropolitan Police officers the week after the killing of Dep. Goforth. And then the issue came to the forefront when Clark County Sheriff Joseph Lombardo, who commands the Las Vegas Metro police, ordered his officers to partner up and ride together on patrol as a way of deterring such attacks. A Las Vegas Metro public information officer stressed in a recent phone call that the two-officer-per-vehicle patrol deployment was temporary and that LVMPD had used the deployment tactic before after major incidents. Still, there are those in the law enforcement community who believe the Clark County Sheriff and other administrators should use the two-officer patrol concept going forward, at least for part of their agencies' cars during certain shifts.

Adam Cars

Very few American law enforcement agencies deploy two officers per vehicle. The reasons for having their officers ride solo are easily understood. Most agencies have too few officers to even consider two-officer patrols. Others who have enough sworn personnel to field two-officer units say they need their officers to ride solo to cover the jurisdiction.

And of course the biggest argument larger agencies have against two-officer patrols is cost. Thanks to a study of the San Diego Police Department that was conducted in the mid-1970s that said the SDPD spent more than 80% more money to field two-officer patrols than single-officer patrols, it is widely believed that running two-officer patrols is much more expensive than single officer patrols. Yet, despite such financial concerns, two of the nation's most financially strapped cities—New York and Los Angeles—continue to run two-officer patrols. And there has to be a reason.

Thanks to the early 1970s TV show "Adam-12" and numerous other portrayals on screen, the image of Los Angeles officers riding as partners is burned into the American consciousness. And it is for the most part true.

LAPD patrol units are primarily designated as A (Adam) units, meaning they consist of two officers. Supervisors ride alone in L (Lincoln) units, and some officers who take incident reports also go solo. But for the most part LAPD officers patrol in pairs.

Many people say the Adam deployment of LAPD officers was legendary Chief William H. Parker's way of rooting out the bad apples of what was in the 1950s the notoriously corrupt LAPD. He figured that by pairing officers they would be less likely to cross the line. But today the two-officer tradition persists so strongly that even when the department, which is perennially understaffed, goes to the mayor and city council asking for more money for more officers, not one politician asks the chief to instead break up the two-officer units.

Sgt. Art Tom of the LAPD's training division says the department's Adam policy persists because of officer safety. "We are strict believers in contact and cover concepts," he says.

Tom adds that LAPD's training and tactics for both recruits and in-service officers is rooted in the concept that responding officers will always have a partner. The agency even has to adjust California Peace Officer Standards and Training programs to accommodate two-officer deployment tactics. "That's the way we teach our officers. If an officer were to pursue someone on foot by him- or herself, we probably would be very critical of that action," Tom says.

Proponents Of Two Officer Patrols Believe Officer Safety Is Enhanced Because Criminals Are Much Less Likely To Get The Jump On Two Officers

Dying Alone

Proponents of two-officer patrol units say they absolutely enhance officer safety. But their argument is hard to prove beyond the basic common sense of strength in numbers and the known benefits of contact-and-cover tactics. There is some statistical evidence that can be interpreted to say that officers are safer in two-officer patrols, but it's far from conclusive.

Over the years many officers have been killed on duty while working alone. The most recent FBI statistics show that 27 officers were killed feloniously in 2013. Of those 27 fallen officers, 11—41%—were alone when they were slain. But such statistics are a double-edged sword because they also show that the majority of officers killed in 2013 had backup.

Tom says anyone seeking concrete proof that having two officers in a car is safer for officers can find it on YouTube. "Personally, I am frustrated when I see news videos of officers being killed alone when I know if they had been with another officer they would still be alive," he says.

The murder of 22-year-old Laurens County, Ga., Sheriff's deputy Kyle Dinkheller is particularly difficult for Tom to reconcile. The video has been shown to thousands of officers in training sessions since it was recorded on a video camera in Dinkheller's patrol car almost 20 years ago. Dinkheller stopped a man named Andrew Brannan in a pickup truck on a lonely country road. Brannan was uncooperative and belligerent. And when Dinkheller went back to his patrol car to request assistance on the radio, Brannan went back to his truck, pulled out an M1 rifle, and killed the young deputy. "If two officers had been on the scene, it would have never happened," Tom says. "The suspect would have never made it back to his truck. He would have been taken to the ground and handcuffed."

Tom also believes two-officer patrols might make people think twice about ambushing officers in their patrol cars. Which is clearly also the belief of the sheriff of Clark County, Nev.

Of course the argument against such thinking is the murder of New York officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos last December. They were riding in a two-officer patrol unit when a gunman came up on the passenger side window and opened fire.

Even the most steadfast proponents of the buddy system for officer safety acknowledge that it won't always work. "It's possible both officers will be killed in an ambush," says a sergeant with a West Coast agency (not the LAPD) who has worked with a partner and solo. "But having two officers in a car gives the bad guy something else to think about and something else that he has to plan for. If he shoots the driver, he doesn't know how the passenger will react. And most crooks really don't want to be shot."

One benefit of having two officers in a car is that it can dissuade people from making such attacks. It can also make it harder for people to find a blind spot from which they can launch an ambush on the officers. "You have to use good tactics and keep your heads on a swivel even when you are with another officer in the car," says the sergeant.

And Tom agrees, but he adds that when both officers in a two-officer unit are alert "it's so much harder to deceive and flank and ambush them. You can do it, but it's much harder."

Calling for Backup

The obvious argument for people who say two-officer patrols are unnecessary is that officers under attack or facing situations they cannot handle by themselves can always call for backup.

And in many cases this is true. But calling for backup is not always a sure thing, as the other officers on your shift may be tied up. And situations often go critical before an officer has an opportunity to call for backup. This is especially true on traffic stops.

"Until you get up to the driver and start asking questions you don't have any idea what you are getting into and things can escalate very quickly," says retired Scottsdale, Ariz., detective Jim Hill. "And when you leave that car and go back to your car and do a reference check, you don't know what is happening in that car. That's why you need another officer to watch the driver and the passengers."

Backup is not always available, but a sergeant who supervises a graveyard shift says it's part of the culture of the officers who work his shift. "You don't even have to call for backup. We hear the call for something like a domestic and, believe me, when you get there you'll find someone to assist you."

Other agencies routinely send backup officers on a variety of calls. Which makes Hill, former president of the Police Officers of Scottsdale Association, question why more agencies don't field two-officer patrols. "Departments say the drawback is decreased visibility and coverage. But if you're going to send two people to that call anyway, that kind of negates the visibility benefit."

Hill argues that one reason so few agencies are willing to use two-officer cars is that contemporary police work is so statistically driven because of tools like Compstat that monitor crime trends in specific commanders' areas of responsibility. "If agencies switched to two-officer patrols, I guarantee you that some administrators would not like it because their stats would go down. But it's not our job to create good stats."

Targeted Patrols

Former Fort Worth, Texas, police chief Jeff Halstead says agencies can improve officer safety and maintain patrol visibility and Compstat performance by switching to a hybrid system of one- and two-officer patrols. He believes two-officer patrols should be tasked to problem areas identified through analytics and predictive policing.

"Deploying 100% of the agency in two-officer units is not effective and not very efficient for most agencies," Halstead argues. "But by utilizing data and seeing where the most crime is occurring and where the highest volume of calls is dispatched, you can actually become more efficient and keep your officers safer.

"If you have five beats in your city that are the most crime-ridden and violent and they have a high volume of two-officer calls being dispatched around the clock, then that's where you want to deploy your two-officer units."

Halstead implemented his hybrid system when the Fort Worth PD phased out its Crown Victoria Police Interceptors for Tahoes. Officers had to be trained to drive the Tahoes, so he also had them cross-trained with rifles and sent them into the city's most dangerous areas as two-officer patrols. He says supervisors loved having that resource for when things got really bad. "They could look out and see they had five Tahoes, which meant 10 officers and 10 rifles," Halstead explains.

The two-officer patrols are still operating in Fort Worth, even though Halstead is retired. However, the agency had to scale back its rifle program, as it now has more two-officer patrols than available rifles and rifle training time.

One veteran sergeant from a West Coast gency (not the LAPD) says his agency now has fewer and fewer two-officer patrols because of contract negotiations that offered the rank-and-file officers a financial incentive to ride alone. But he says he is well aware of the effectiveness and efficiency of two-officer units and does his best to keep the ones under his command.

"From a supervisor point of view, two-officer patrols are like unicorns, rare and valuable," he says. "I always want them on my shift, and I try to keep them. When I have to loan out cars to the other areas of the city on my shift, I don't want to loan my two-officer units."

Ending Distracted Driving

The cabin of a contemporary law enforcement patrol vehicle is as full of electronic distractions as any typical 21st century office. The land mobile radio is squawking, the officer's cellphone is beeping with incoming texts and e-mails, and vital information is displayed on the laptop or other computer screen. All of these devices are fighting for the attention of the officer whose eyes and attention should really be on the road as he or she pilots a more-than-two-ton vehicle down the road.

"If you don't have attention deficit disorder before you get into police work these days, the department will groom it into you," says Jim Hill, a retired Scottsdale, Ariz., detective. "You watch the road as you drive, listen to the radio, watch the computer for announcements, all while listening for ambient noise of trouble outside your rolled down window."

Statistics on how many police vehicle accidents are caused by distracted driving are not compiled. But they ought to be. Because even though agencies discourage officers from reading the computer while driving, most find they have no choice but to do so. Which is dangerous for the officer and the public.

Most agencies think they cover this issue with policy, but officers say both the agencies and the officers know such policies are not practical. "You can create any policy you want that says officers have to pull over before using the computer, and it's not going to happen because everybody wants to get there and take care of business. That's what we signed up for," says one veteran officer.

Many officers and former officers believe agencies could end the distracted driving problem by putting two officers in a vehicle, much the same way that the military uses a pilot and radar officer on some of its most sophisticated fighter-bombers.

On agencies like the Los Angeles Police Department that use two-officer patrol units, one officer drives and the other runs the radio, the computer, and any other device that requires eyes-on attention. The LAPD believes this system improves officer and public safety.

Having two officers in a car can also make police vehicle pursuits safer. On the LAPD, it's the passenger officer's job to help clear intersections. That second officer can also remind the driver to slow down a bit and remind the driver if the pursuit is necessary and within policy.

The author wishes to thank Scott Buhrmaster and Dawn Seefeldt of the Force Science Institute for assisting in the research of this article.

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