Lone-Officer Patrols: Going Solo

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.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

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.[PAGEBREAK]

Is There Safety in Numbers?

For some police veterans like Lt. Amaury Murgado of the Osceola County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office, the "one size fits all" paradigm of police personnel allocation is frustrating.

"Understand that a big chunk of law enforcement bureaucrats are stuck in the '70s," notes Murgado. "They also wouldn't know how to handle a call if their life depended on it. (When it comes to the prospect of going out in a one-person car) It's easy for them to fall back on telling officers, 'Well, that's your job.'"

Murgado gives voice to the concerns of thousands of officers who intuitively, instinctively, and intellectually believe in the adage of "safety in numbers."

One Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy bitterly states that, "With LASD, two-man cars are either training units or early morning shift cars in unincorporated parts of the county. When I was on patrol, we were the busiest station in the entire county. Couple of murders a week, all kinds of force incidents, and we were still rolling one-man cars. The almighty dollar still reigns supreme and officer safety be damned."

Even those not so condemning of the one-officer-one-car operational paradigm acknowledge a preference for having the passenger seat occupied and that the arguments for deploying a second officer go beyond officer/suspect confrontations.

Threat Awareness

The presence of a second officer not only lessens the workload and anxiety otherwise borne by the single officer, it allows for greater latitude of force options; indeed, the possibility of mitigating force altogether by availing more than one communicative approaches to situations.

Two-officer units allow the driver officer to be more attentive to his or her driving. The less-obligated bookman is then freer to pick up on potential community threats or concerns when not handling the radio or acknowledging a call via his or her MDT.

Teaneck, N.J., police officer John Abraham's death is just one of many fatal single party police crashes wherein the primary causal factor is at best inferred. One thing is known: In the moments leading up to the 2 a.m. crash, he'd been running computer checks on license plates. Had a bookman been handling the MDT, might the crash have been avoided?

Again, the whole "well, maybe we might've had two dead cops" argument could come into play here. Indeed, the single officer car is something some administrators may point to as a reason why officers aren't getting killed with the degree of frequency that they did 40 years ago. However, considering the increased emphasis on tactical training, body armor, and improved medical intervention, one might just as reasonably ask why officer deaths aren't lower than they are.

From the moment she takes the wheel, the solo officer has her hands full. She is expected to somehow simultaneously be cognizant of suspicious activities, effect traffic stops, and respond to calls—all the while navigating her way around a confined environment occupied with dash cameras, mobile digitals, license plate recognition systems, and computers.

And should she be distracted in attending to any one of these components and find herself in a collision, these same confinements may then become projectiles upon impact.

Life outside the car is no less challenging. Weaned on officer safety mantras like "watch the hands," she becomes judicious in screening her traffic stops, preferring single occupant detentions whenever possible: The fewer things to watch for, the better. Still, she occasionally finds herself outnumbered, and divides her vigilance accordingly as she awaits the arrival of backup.

Despite these concerns, the contemporary officer has by and large made peace with working solo. Today, most cops are accustomed to working alone and-save for their patrol training—have never experienced otherwise. Many—like Sgt. Jason Wolak of the LASD—find cause to prefer working alone.

"If your partner is rude, egotistical, and dangerous, then give me that King car," says Wolak. "The key to one-person cars is the relationship with your sister car."[PAGEBREAK]


Law enforcement has a history of proving English poet John Donne wrong, if not by design then by default: Many officers have spent their careers as more or less islands working alone and sometimes in some pretty stormy seas.

And there is little reason to expect much change. Budget cuts have forced some agencies like the Camden (N.J.) Police Department to severely cut back on personnel. Other agencies like the LASD have spread themselves dangerously thin, assuming jurisdictional responsibilities elsewhere. Finally, some like the Vallejo (Calif.) Police Department have been

This new police reality has created even more challenges for the single officer. Already saddled with greater demands of technical familiarity and professional versatility, officers are being told to cover more and more geography.

But have law enforcement administrators paid commensurate attention to their officers' emotional and physical well-being? Are agencies doing all they can to mitigate risk? Or is it time that the rules governing the deployment of one-person cars be re-examined, and in some cases, redefined?

Just what kind of situations we are sending our single units into is a primary concern.

Few agencies would knowingly dispatch a single officer to a robbery call. Yet time and again, single officers are dispatched to calls whose very nature strongly suggests a minimum two-officer response in deference to officer safety concerns or matters of practicality.

Consider the following examples:

  • Domestic Violence "Report" Calls: Whereas other crime report calls generally don't entail risks of the suspect returning to the location, the same can't be said of domestic violence.
  • Shots Fired Report Calls: Particularly those instances where shots have originated in a confined environment and the origin of the shots has not been determined and suspects remain at large. Earlier this year, Clark County, Ohio, sheriff's deputy Suzanne Hopper was investigating such a call in a mobile home park when a man stepped out of his trailer and shot her in the face with a shotgun.
  • Suicide by Hanging Calls: How effective is sending a single officer lights and siren to such a call? Is the responding officer expected to prop up the individual and cut him down by himself?

Just as dispatchers need to exercise common sense in anticipating the field needs of officers, so too do both officers and their employing agencies need to be cognizant that just as there is no "routine traffic stop," there is no "safe" point during a police investigation so long as a suspect remains at large.

The vigilance of the solitary officer should extend beyond just who is around; officers also need to consider what they may be communicating through their actions and statements.

Chicago police officer Michael Flisk was working a burglary scene when he was approached by Timothy Herring, who inquired of his investigation's progress. Flisk answered that he'd successfully lifted fingerprints and it'd be a matter of time before the suspect would be in custody. Unfortunately, Herring was that suspect, and he momentarily turned away before doubling back and shooting both Flisk and burglary victim Stephen Peters (himself a retired Chicago Housing Authority officer).

The two men died at the scene. Herring later admitted to committing the murders because he didn't want to be caught for the theft and sent back to prison.[PAGEBREAK]

Lone Stars

Officers riding alone need to take advantage of backup where it's available. Unfortunately, not everyone does.

As an officer with the Dallas Police Department, Bruce Bryant notes that "Lone Star" may reference something other than the Texas state flag: It may refer to a dangerous state of mind.

"Our 'Priority Two' calls such as prowler, domestics, suspicious persons are routinely assigned as two-unit handles," Bryant observes. "The first unit on scene is expected to wait for the second unit. But sometimes the hard-chargers aren't great about waiting," Bryant says. "Perhaps it's pride or just that cops are used to doing more with less, but often single person cars will go ahead and make initial contact on their own."

Acting Alone

Basic expectations are one thing; going above and beyond, quite another. And yet that is exactly what we routinely expect our officers to do when it comes to the prospect of honoring their civic promise.

They have not disappointed.

From Salt Lake City to Ft. Hood, officers acting alone have engaged active shooters and courageously mitigated loss of life.

It follows that police administrators, managers, and frontline supervisors need to go above and beyond as well.

Administrators overseeing high crime areas should explore the prospect of fielding two-person cars. The pairing of two hardworking officers might create the kind of productive synergy that civic leaders can get behind. Those same studies used to defend single car deployments acknowledged that two-person cars generally made more traffic detentions and issued more traffic violations.

Department overseers might even want to reconsider restrictions on who they accept financial support from if the money can allow them to field more officers. More than one gentlemen's club has been rebuffed at making donations to a police agency, money that could defray operating costs so as to allow the channeling of money toward better logistics, weaponry, and yes, even personnel.

As non-workable criminal reports consume sizable portions of officers' work shifts, consideration should be given toward civilianizing some patrol functions with community service officers and volunteers assuming responsibility for documenting crime reports. Many agencies already have citizens file their own reports at stations or via the Internet. These practices can free up more officers for the street and result in more two-officer patrol units.

Lieutenants and watch commanders need to be willing and able to sometimes justify an officer's delayed response to an aggrieved citizen. Just as citizens should have every reasonable expectation of prompt assistance when needed, so, too, should they be patient when it comes to response times on less pressing incidents.

Sergeants should take initiative in rolling on calls and traffic stops. Not only does this prevent other personnel from needlessly rolling hard, but it allows supervisors to see firsthand how officers routinely conduct themselves before circumstances become emergent.

Training personnel may also want to consider incorporating more single officer scenarios and be given the latitude to do so. While they may be more cost efficient to conduct, two-officer deployment scenarios often don't mirror field realities. EVOC training should likewise simulate the real world environments of a single officer pursuit, incorporating the sometimes complicating presence of mic usage, etc.

Just as officers should reasonably be accorded such efforts, so should they deserve them. They should not assume the willingness of their supervisors to run interference on their behalf as a license to goof off or otherwise delay or impede the work expected of them.

Finally, civic officials need to step up their support for their own political necks if for no other reason.

As a Los Angeles Daily News commentary recently noted, public safety budgets have to be the number one priority. "When the economy improves, the city can recover quickly from shortened library hours, from a delay in pothole repair, and from parks gone raggedy. The city can't, however, rebound easily if criminals once again feel comfortable victimizing people in Los Angeles. And the public should never again have to adjust to living in the murder capital of the U.S."

One-person cars do have inarguable benefits. Dirk Dewachter of the Inglewood (Calif.) Police Department notes that "one-man car deployments offer a supervisor the ability to cover a larger territory with fewer cars in case you need to set up a perimeter as a result of a foot or vehicle pursuit or robbery/burglary just occurred."

Still, the single officer unit should not be taken for granted. To be sure, there will always be unavoidable tragedies such as the reported property theft call that proves to be an ambush setup. But the law enforcement community needs to do all it can to mitigate the chance of an officer dying because he or she had the misfortune of being alone.

But even those administrators sympathetic to the two-person unit will ultimately look at anyone who says two-officer units are safer and more effective and shrug: Who is going to fund them?

A realist, Capt. Shawn Laffey with the Goose Creek (S.C.) Police Department notes that officers will ultimately have to fend for themselves.

"I don't see anything changing-especially in this economy," Laffey says. "It's a disagreeable fact: We're single man units, and we're going to remain such."

About the Author
Author Dean Scoville Headshot
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