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

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?

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

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.


Persecuted Patrol Officers

However important the patrol officer is deemed within the law enforcement community, he or she is without question its most recognized agent. Certainly, the patrol officer and his iconography—badge, helmet, and baton—are the most emblematic of the profession. And nowhere are such fixtures more prominent than in the editorial cartoons of the nation's newspapers.

When it comes to caricatured indictments, the patrol officer runs second to none. His is the shadowy effigy portrayed violating citizens' rights with flashlights, batons, and guns. It is an image that has been beaten into the public consciousness with the same zeal as the sins of some of our quick-to-pound forefathers who fostered the bias. From Eula Love to Malice Green, from Rodney King to others less famous, patrol officer/citizen contacts have been the flashpoints for lawsuits, civil protests, and riots.

These episodes have left many—particularly those in minority communities and with left-leaning sensibilities—with the impression that patrol work and police abuse are virtually synonymous.

In the aftermath of a Cincinnati police officer's criminal indictment, Glenda Pottorf of South Lebanon, Ohio, called the charges a slap on the wrist. "I think the family didn't get any justice for the death of their son," the 37-year-old factory worker said. "No offense to police officers, but I think they can kill you and get away with it. ... Cops can be murderers."

If Pottorf's reaction is typical of many in minority communities that still view police officers as little more than occupying armies, then the statements of one police labor union representative reflects the feelings of street cops who see themselves offered up as sacrificial lambs in federal charges of civil rights violations with increasing frequency: "Nobody has a problem with bad cops being prosecuted, but everybody has a problem with good cops being persecuted."

Treated Like a Stepchild

Persecuted or not, many patrol officers suffer from a sense of being unappreciated. And nowhere is that lack of appreciation more pernicious than when it's in-house.

Century Station of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has one of the highest gang concentrations in the nation and the deserved reputation of being one of the department's "fastest" stations. It also has one of the faster turnover rates of patrol personnel.

A former Century deputy explained some of the stressors that come with working patrol at Century Station.

"I never knew when I was going to be home or when I'd get a good night's sleep," he reflects. "I was always going to court on my days off and could never plan anything around my family. Getting time off was nearly impossible and, on top of that, I was getting drafted to work overtime shifts that I didn't want to work, simply because the station was understaffed and things were always kicking off. I was stressed and getting irritable. It was putting my marriage in jeopardy."

The LASD deputy's sentiments are echoed in the words of a Dallas patrol officer who is currently in the process of making a lateral transfer to another law enforcement agency.

"Patrol is the bastard stepchild—anything that needs to be done gets dumped on us. We're always riding short. If there's an opening in a non-patrol spot they'll let a patrol officer go without backfill. Before long, you have multiple vacancies and those officers that remain are the ones that get stuck handling everything. They get depressed, morale gets impacted, and pretty soon things back up. Calls don't get answered for several hours, and arrests don't get made. It's no secret that Dallas has had the highest crime rate per capita of any major city in the U.S. for eight years running."

When asked why this might be the case, the officer pauses. "I don't know. But I do know this: Everything that's communicated to patrol seems to be negative."

He elaborates: "When word came down that the sheriff's department was going to assume the handling of traffic accidents on our highways, the department sent a memo to our officers. This memo had huge bold letters, all capitalized, and underlined—basically saying that we're not off the hook, we'd still have to assist on traffic collisions, if needed.

"It wasn't just this incident that told us that the command staff sees us as lazy. The police chief himself came to third watch at Northeast Station. He said he wanted an honest chat with the troops. But when the man didn't like what he was hearing, he got into a shouting match with a couple of senior FTOs on the watch and called one a 'lazy, do nothing' officer.

"He couldn't have misjudged the officer any worse—the man is the hardest working officer on the watch. And the chief just savaged him. Everyone knows what happened, and it shows how out of touch the chief is relative to patrol. But then, nobody wants to tell the truth in staff meetings. They just want to toe the company line. They're in a world of their own."

It would appear that for some agencies, patrol will remain in a world of its own, as well.

The Future

Patrol isn't for everyone. Frustrated with a new generation of officers that asks, "Why?" before complying with orders, many old timers wonder what the bitching and whining of the youngsters is all about. Increasingly sympathetic to decriminalizing certain laws, while wishing for harsher penalties for still others, the new guard is equally bewildered by the old.

Meanwhile, the success of each generation is evaluated differently from agency to agency, from station to station. The bean counters will continue to tally the numbers of citations written and arrests made. Administrators will look askance at the guy who has one more citizen's complaint than they feel comfortable with. And patrol officers will continue to wonder just how important he or she is in a world where his captain rarely appears at briefings and her chief is never seen.

But make no mistake about it: Patrol is where the rubber meets the road. It is the most visible component of law enforcement operations. As such, its best interests should be monitored by those who have been there and done that as opposed to those who have had but a cursory exposure to its nuances while on the administrative fast track.

There have been improvements. As noted, technology has helped streamline much of the officer's work, with the paranoia that attached itself to many implementations such as GPS and dash cameras having largely abated. Moreover, many agencies now have peer support groups and psychological counseling programs available for their patrol officers.

But while improved technology, medicine, and tactics have helped officers, such advancements have in some degree been offset by a society that has become increasingly inured to violence, accepting of it within virtually all segments of its population, perhaps none more than its officers. Perhaps that's why 2007 was one of the deadliest years the law enforcement community has experienced in decades.

It's been said that working patrol is as much an art as it is a science. Always respected, it commands commensurate attention and not just fashionable lip service. Having a mission statement is fine but, for a mission to be successful, law enforcement agencies have to give their patrol forces the tools necessary to carry out that mission.

For patrol to be a success, agencies will have to establish and maintain rigorous hiring and training standards, allocate sufficient personnel and logistics, offer competitive pay, and be willing to confront the community with sometimes unpleasant truths about itself.

This will require parity in discipline and not the firing of a lowly officer and the mere administrative transfer of a member of the command staff for the same offense.


This will mean repealing or modifying undermining policies.

This will mean adhering to the tide of its own expectations and not straying from the course for more politically favorable eddies.

This will mean administrators finding a way to foster greater solidarity to a corps that is much more diverse ideologically, ethnically, and socially than it has ever been, replete with its own varied takes on the system within which it works.

Finally, law enforcement will need to make a distinction between the appearance of patrol success and actual patrol success. This in itself may well come down to distinguishing between making arrests and simply not making waves. 

The following POLICE Web Poll was posted in August, 2007 to discover how readers felt about the fairness of patrol supervisors documenting officer performance.   

In January 2008, POLICE Magazine launched a year-long article series focusing on the “state of American law enforcement.” If you’d like to read the other chapters, click on the links below.

Chapter 1: The Thinning Blue Line.  Law enforcement agencies nationwide are competing for a dwindling population of recruits.

Chapter 2: The Blue Mosaic.  Policies meant to diversify law enforcement agencies have changed police demographics and will continue to do so in the future.

Chapter 3: Teaching to the Test.  Does law enforcement training focus too much on qualifying and not enough on skills that can help you win fights?

Chapter 4: A Love-Hate Relationship.  Most people only meet an officer when they are arrested, questioned, or cited. That makes it hard for them to like cops.

Chapter 5: Can the Average Cop Thrive in the Age of Specialization?  The generalist cop is part of a dying breed, which means many of today's officers will need to excel at a specialty.

Chapter 6: Women Warriors.  Female police officers must walk a fine line between fitting in and making their own way in law enforcement.

Chapter 8: SWAT: Breaking the Mold.  Agencies nationwide model their tactical teams on LAPD SWAT. So what does it mean if that unit changes its policies to be more politically correct?

Chapter 9: Stopping the Next 9/11.  Improvements in intelligence gathering, training, and equipment give you a good chance of preventing the next attack and saving lives if it happens.

Chapter 10: Rules of Engagement. Today’s law enforcement officer is the best trained and best equipped cop in history, so why do policy makers think you have the judgment and intellect of children?

Chapter 11: Gangster Nation.  Big city street gangs have taken root in small town  America, bringing mayhem to Main Street.

Chapter 12: Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't.  When a cop uses - or doesn't use - a less-lethal weapon in contemporary America, there can be hell to pay.

About the Author
Author Dean Scoville Headshot
Associate Editor
View Bio
Page 1 of 2312
Next Page