Surviving Foot Patrol

The benefits of foot beats are many and this type of patrol should be a fundamental aspect in any community policing model. But after being directed to an assigned area or neighborhood to walk, an officer and his or her department should have sound strategies in place for how best to accomplish this mission in a safe and productive manner.

Photo: Tom WetzelPhoto: Tom Wetzel

Prior to the development of the automobile and subsequently police cruisers, if cops weren't on horses, they were walking a beat.

The benefits of foot beats are many and this type of patrol should be a fundamental aspect in any community policing model. But after being directed to an assigned area or neighborhood to walk, an officer and his or her department should have sound strategies in place for how best to accomplish this mission in a safe and productive manner.

Clothing and Footwear

Having a good pair of shoes is naturally an important component of any foot patrol function. If this assignment is full-time, you should be permitted to purchase athletic shoes or specific shoes made for long walking.

Tactical boots are not the preferred shoe of choice for this assignment. Even though manufacturers have made a lot of advances in the design of police boots and made them much lighter, boots just aren't made for the high mileage that a foot patrol assignment involves.

An agency must recognize that when assigning an officer to a foot beat that officer will likely go through more shoes than if he or she was patrolling in a cruiser. If your department provides a clothing allowance, it should include extra funds for purchasing athletic shoes, which can get pretty expensive.

Clothing for foot patrol officers needs to be lightweight and designed for comfort and coolness in the summer months. Shorts and polo-type shirts can provide this type of benefit and still allow for a professional presentation.

Force Options

Having lots of use-of-force options is especially important for an officer on foot patrol. You won't have a cruiser to use as cover or provide for a quick tactical retreat.

Your duty belt needs to be equipped with pepper spray, electronic control devices, a control baton, and your duty weapon. You should also work regularly on defensive tactics techniques.

As communications with your agency dispatch center or patrol units are vital, as a foot patrol officer you need to have good portable radios and at least one backup battery. You also need a cell phone.

Directionless Direction

Once you begin a foot patrol assignment, it is important to develop a strategy that provides a consistent officer presence without an obvious routine that can be recognized.

By following a different daily path as a course of action, you can patrol using a "directionless direction" model. This model involves beginning at a different spot at the start of each shift and then following a different pattern of movement with concentration on areas of concern within a neighborhood or district. This could be done on a random basis or involve charting a course of movement for the week.

When walking a course, periodically stopping, turning around and going back in the same direction can present an opportunity for surprise. If a suspect sees you walking down a street, he or she is likely to assume that you will continue in that direction. Even if he thinks you may loop back around a block, there may be a perception of a window of time to commit a crime. Sudden rerouting may thwart these opportunities. [PAGEBREAK]

The demands of the shift such as call volume and the people you encounter will likely alter specific courses that you planned. This is to be expected and should be considered an aspect of the directionless direction model.

Foot Patrol Precautions

When walking a beat, look for objects and locations that can provide you with needed cover. By doing this enough times, you will help engrain these opportunities in your mind so that under stress, you may use them

Get used to walking wide on corners when you walk a beat. This allows you to casually "slice the pie" as a manner of routine and look natural doing so.

When teaching self-defense programs, I tell participants to get in the habit of having their heads in a horizontal plane instead of looking down when walking to their cars. Too often, people get deep in thought and look downward at the ground as they walk. On foot patrol you could fall into the same habit. Looking at a more level position allows you to scan farther and recognize dangerous situations more quickly.

Periodically stopping and listening is also important. Your ears may become attuned to the rhythmic sounds of your steps and equipment jostling while walking for long periods of time. By not moving for a few moments, your mind and ears may pick up on distant sounds that could be signs of trouble.

Gathering Intel

Scanning the interiors of restaurants or businesses when walking by them or prior to entering them can allow you to note anything unusual. A benefit of regular foot patrol can be recognizing what and who looks out of place, which leads into an important benefit of foot patrol. Recognizing unusual behavior at specific spots as well as getting to know the people on your patrol beat gives you an excellent opportunity to gather intelligence on possible criminal behavior within that area.

Citizens and police officers through time and trust can develop a "we" relationship when working to keep a neighborhood safe. This symbiotic relationship, which is vital to any community policing effort, can chip away at the "us vs. them" attitude that can manifest in different neighborhoods based on a history of mistrust between police and those they serve.

By getting out and talking with people and business owners, you can establish relationships where citizens feel comfortable telling you about what and who concerns them. In time you will have your finger on the pulse of a neighborhood and be able to serve it better.

But be cautious chatting up the locals. You do not want to endanger the residents who provide you with information. These citizens have to live and/or work in the neighborhood and talking to a cop could cause a problem for them. The intelligence you gather from them should be used judiciously and generally used to support other more formal information you've learned

Take the High Ground

Walking a beat should not be limited to ground level action. If your areas of patrol include multiple story buildings or higher natural elevations, you should periodically observe your beat from high ground.

Getting above street level allows you to see the area you patrol from a different perspective. This perspective may allow you to plan your routes better, observe criminal or suspicious activity, and note possible hiding spots for suspects.

Conditioning is Crucial

Depending on the type of assignment, full time or as part of a periodic assignment, if you've been assigned to foot patrol you need to pace yourself. A casual and steady walking pace will allow you to absorb more information and listen better. Walking too fast may wear you out more quickly and limit your energy if you suddenly get involved in a running foot chase.

For pacing purposes, it is important to take time to stop or sit for awhile. This gives your legs a chance to rest and relieves some stress on your knees.

One of the health benefits of foot patrol is the exercise. For tracking purposes, purchase a pedometer to see how many miles you log while on shift. You are essentially working and working out while on duty and this can be a real win-win for you and your department.

The benefits of foot patrol are many. Officers walking beats can contribute to an added sense of security within a neighborhood and enhance the harmony between police officers and those they serve. Having strategies to implement this patrol function can benefit the officers, their agencies, and the communities they serve. Police officers on foot patrol should not just be sent out to walk a beat but should instead be sent out "walking with a plan."

Tom Wetzel is a northeast Ohio suburban police lieutenant, SWAT officer, trainer, and certified law enforcement executive.

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