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by Peter Moskos

August 9, 2009

Angels In Blue: The Virtues of Foot Patrol

An article of mine, "Angels in Blue: The Virtues of Foot Patrol," is being published in The American Interest magazine. They've given me permission to spread the article around. But you have to buy the magazine to read all the other articles (seems only fair).

The article is adopted from a new chapter in the paperback edition of my book, Cop in the Hood, which is due out later this month.

The pattern today is when police start driving, they never "walk foot" again. That represents a loss for community and police alike. Foot patrol officers knew their neighborhood because in a real sense they were part of it. Beat cops watched people grow up, get jobs, or get in trouble.
Beyond a few token patrols, police chiefs say foot patrol is impossible nowadays because there simply aren't enough officers to go around. But there aren't fewer police officers than there used to be; they're just assigned differently--riding in cars and chasing the radio. The reason police officers resists foot patrol is simple: They don't like it. In a car culture, cars are status. Walking is bottom-of-the-barrel duty, and tough work--when it rains you get wet.
Just as overtime pay drives discretionary arrests, extra pocket money would change the very culture of patrol. Officers need to
want to walk foot, and more money is a way to make them want it. Only with willing officers does foot patrol bring the best possible benefits.
Read the whole article here.


Frequent Poster said...

Great article!

One quibble and one question:

1. QUIBBLE: I don't think that the Crowley / Gates thing has reinforced the message that a bogus arrest is better than none at all. Rather, for policemen, I believe that the imbroglio has strongly reinforced the exact opposite message.

2. QUESTION: "the tail has long since started to wag the dog." This seems subtly incorrect because the word "since" has no clear referrent in the quote. I read that and think, "long since when"? Maybe it's okay as long as your edipeeps is cool w/ it.

Jack said...

Actually many departments have fewer officers lately because of layoffs and budget shortages. The problem is particular bad in states hit hard by the real estate crisis like California, Arizona and Nevada.

Foot patrols are also unrealistic in parts of many large sprawling cities like Los Angeles. A beat in the San Fernando Valley can cover 8 square miles or more with box canyons, too much even for a bicycle patrol.

PCM said...

I agree foot patrol isn't right for areas where people don't walk on the sidewalks (or there aren't sidewalks).

But foot patrol is right for a lot of urban areas, and it isn't used.

Here's my rule of thumb for when foot patrol is appropriate: Look at the mailman. If he or she delivers on foot pushing a cart, then police should also be on foot.

Jaguar said...

Your article raises some interesting issues. I particularly like the idea of officers spending an hour each shift on foot patrol. A similar policy has been implemented informally in some departments with a weekly but not daily quota of foot hours. I also think bicycles are an excellent alternative. The mindset has changed significantly about bikes; ten or fifteen years ago they were as unpopular as a Segway is today for patrol, but many young officers now think bike patrol is cool.

In my opinion, however, your piece does not address some critical issues. Morale is important in any employment structure, whether it be law enforcement or a factory assembly line. Happy workers work better. I don't think $25 will do much to improve the morale of an officer eleven hours into a twelve-hour shift. As you know, many departments have switched to four-ten or three-twelve schedules. Officers like them, particularly if you're on an overnight shift, because you can spend more time with spouse and children. That improves morale, a positive tradeoff. Now tell an officer he or she has to spend those twelve-hour shifts on foot, day in and day out all year long. I don't want to witness the rollcall when you lob that one out there.

Officer safety is another critical issue. Even an officer in excellent physical condition will feel significant fatigue at the end of a long shift spent entirely on foot. I have a pretty serious workout regimen and regularly compete in triathlons; however, at the end of a long shift on my feet, the fatigue is palpable. An exhausted officer makes more mistakes that affect both his/her safety and that of his/her fellow officers, not to mention the public.

The long-term human resource impact also needs to be considered. An officer who spends ten or more years on foot patrol faces some pretty significant physical wear-and-tear: varicose veins, back strain, spinal disk issues, knee joint deterioration, hemorrhoids, and more. That has both an emotional cost in terms of morale, a safety cost in the reduced physical effectiveness, and a fiscal cost in increased medical leave. People who work on their feet wear out faster than people who work on their derrieres. Of course, vehicle-bound officers can experience health issues like obesity; however, regular fitness recertification can remedy that. As well, officers who spend too much time on a bicycle can develop health issues, too, including impotence and urinary issues.

Additionally, the policing world has evolved fairly significantly since 911. The emphasis on rapid deployment and emergency preparedness has increased markedly. A patrol car has tactical and security resources that a foot or bike officer does not have. A cruiser-based officer, for example, would be far more effective than a foot officer when first on the scene of a spree shooting. A Bushmaster AR-15 can be strapped inside the trunk of a police cruiser, but a foot or bike patrol officer cannot carry such a weapon.

[concluded in next comment]

Jaguar said...

[comment concluded]

This one statement threw me for a loop:

Patrol should be increased to two-thirds or three-fourths of the department, and about three-fourths of those on patrol should be on foot or bike.

You dropped that M-80 and then just moved on. Where did that number come from and what studies back it up? In a hypothetical department with 200 officers, serving a city of roughly 250,000 people, that would leave as many as 112 officers on foot patrol and as few as 50 on anything but patrol. Fifty officers to handle detectives (narc, vice, robbery/homicide, violent crimes, domestic, juvenile, financial, gangs, arson, etc.), administration, traffic and AI, K-9, SWAT, IA, and more. Many smaller departments also use officers for jail, dispatch, records, and/or forensics. That would be a department stretched mightily thin in some critical areas.

Now consider the logistics and emergency management involved in this plan. With a department of 200 officers, depending on your shift structure, you would have maybe 50-75 officers on duty at any one time, depending on the shift. Now a disaster strikes our city, say a passenger train derailment. You need every available officer at that scene as quickly as possible. How do you get all those foot officers to that site to assist with traffic control, crowd control, site control, emergency assistance, and more? Fire personnel and EMTs cannot be expected to perform those tasks.

On paper, such a plan sounds interesting. In practice, however, I think it's impractical and over-prioritizes only one aspect of policing.

One final note: I noticed on a recent trip to New York that several foot patrol officers were carrying MP5s (these were not at transit points, by the way, but on the street). It was interesting to watch civilian reactions to these officers. While the more jaded New Yorkers barely offered them a glance, the public skittishness was still apparent. A citizen's reaction to a baton-twirling officer arguable is different than the reaction to one toting a very visible and formidable weapon. I think there's an image tradeoff to such a police presence on foot. Some people feel more secure with such a display of weaponry, but many do not. I know when I've carried an AR-15, I've heard bystanders say variations of "how does he know that thing won't go off?" You could argue, of course, that foot officers need not carry this kind of weaponry; however, in a post-911 world, that is less of an option.

PCM said...

Patrol should be increased to two-thirds or three-fourths of the department, and about three-fourths of those on patrol should be on foot or bike.

Honestly Jaguar, I just made that up based on the fact that now the numbers are about 1/2 and 1/20, respectively.

I figure it's a good place to start the debate. There are no studies on such matters, though I'd love to do one.

One correction of sorts, though. Cities generally have one officer for every 250 to 300 people (L.A. being at the very low end of 1 per 400).

So a city of 250,000 would have about 1,000 sworn officers. So, by my plan, that would mean about 700 of 1,000 on patrol (making it for real the "backbone of the dept"). And out of that, 500 (up from 25) walking foot or riding bikes.

The total number of officers in all other units would need to be cut in half. Car patrol would drop from 475 to 200. Everything else from 500 to 300.

I'm not at all certain how those brutal cuts would be worked out out. But the goal would be on crime prevention, hopefully lessening the need of reactive investigation.

Thinning the ranks of middle and upper management would also be a good start.

But I wouldn't want to actually thin the ranks because rank is more money and promotion is part of the police career for many officer.

But I wouldn't mind changing the responsibility of rank and having more of middle and upper management still actually on patrol.

Or, more radically, creating a new non-ranked promotion along with line of "specialized foot officer." The idea would be to give patrol officers all the money of a higher rank but keep them on patrol.

It's a strange system indeed where most of the hard work and interaction with the public is done with the youngest and least-experienced officers.

There should be a way for police to advance their career without having to sit inside.

Jaguar said...

Cities generally have one officer for every 250 to 300 people

Larger cities, yes. Not always so for smaller cities, particularly in the west. In my department, the ratio is one officer per 665 citizens.

Based on some stats at my fingertips: Spokane has a population of slightly over 200,000 and has just over 200 sworn officers. Similar, Glendale California is slightly over 200K, the police department has just under 200 sworn officers. Peoria Arizona has a population of roughly 150K with about 160 sworn officers. These numbers do not include any admin, so they should be adjusted upward somewhat.

Regardless of the size of the population, however, I think a force of roughly 200 officers would be stretched too thin if half of them were on foot or bike patrol.

having more of middle and upper management still actually on patrol

I'm all in favor of that. That's still seen in departments of the 50-100 officer size. Anything smaller, almost no one is behind a desk.

For smaller departments, I think sector officers are also invaluable -- each neighborhood is assigned a patrol officer liaison 24/7. You have a problem with the department, he or she's your permanent contact. The officer spends much of the time on patrol but some of the time in the liaison function. Even some large cities have this. I believe LA now has a system something like this.

PCM said...

I love the idea of a permanent neighborhood liaison. Somebody who can see problems and not just incidents. A problem generally though is that these officers don't stay in place for more than a few years.

And some spot fact checking from: http://www.spokanepolice.org/leftnav/directory/default.aspx.

Spokane says they have 300 officers (not 200), but even that is still just 1:667.

They need more cops. Sometimes size really does matter!

They also have 280 cars--perhaps if they got rid of some cars they could hire more cops.

There are also some other good random facts from their website, which can often be hard to figure out.

For instance, personnel is 72% of their budget ($114,400/officer).

I'd love to know how much goes to buying and keeping up all those cars. If it comes from the same budget (my guess is it doesn't), it's not a point in my favor.

Even if all the remaining 28% of the budget were shifted entirely to personnel (which I know isn't possible), that would provide for only another 80 cops.

Also, 911 calls have increased from 38,500 in 2004 to 92,754(!) in 2007. What's going on there?

Anyway, simply debating the budgetary practicality of foot patrol is a big step in the right direction.

And if foot patrol meant more money needs to go to more police officers, all the better.

Jaguar said...

On the subject of foot patrol, another thought struck me. My own observation is that young officers with a military background are generally less likely to complain about foot duty compared to officers who have no military background. Take a young guy recently discharged who spent the last four years in the Army or USMC. He's already spent a lot of time on his feet and is used to regular physical exertion. Now compare him to a young officer who recently graduated from college or is coming out of some desk job like system analyst or customer relations. He's spent the last several years on his backside.

I know when I was a rookie, fresh out of the service, I loved being outside and on the street. I was already used to tramping all over the place, rain or shine. The fact that I didn't have to sit in the mud to eat a packaged meal that was five years old was a luxury. The same was true for other grunts and doggies. The young guys (and a few ladies) who were college graduates tended not to share our opinions.

Spokane says they have 300 officers

I was looking at DoJ stats for patrol plus detectives. Looking at the Spokane PD website, I see a total of 208 total personnel assigned to HQ, court, property, communications, and training. The website says they have a total of 108 civilian personnel, so that means exactly 100 sworn are indoors. Take your 300 minus that 100 and you end up with my 200.

Sometimes size really does matter

Truly. That's where economies of scale makes a major difference for large departments.

They also have 280 cars--perhaps if they got rid of some cars they could hire more cops.

Unfortunately, the grant game doesn't always work that way, particularly for medium and smaller departments, because the money is tied to specific budget items. It's often easier to get state or federal money for vehicles or tech but not for boots on the street because the latter is a longer-term commitment. Also, federal LE agencies will often just give you seized vehicles for undercover, which adds to fleet size. And, frankly, you grab what's available in the grant pot when it's available if you're not a huge department. If you can get federal money for vehicles or tech, you grab it even if you don't need it, because who knows when the money will be available again. But you don't cut your vehicle or tech budget at the same time, because if you do, then you might not get it back again. So you're spending money you don't need to spend out of fear it will be taken away from you in the future.


I suspect that's total cost per head, not salary per head. Adding things like FICA, disability, insurance, pension, uniform allowance, etc. to base salary and you can hit $115K pretty quickly.

Motorcop said...

Good article. You probably also know Peel came up with the term COP. COP = Constable On Patrol. It's not negative like many people think.

Motorcops usually hate foot patrol. A motorcop wants to ride. That's the appeal of the job. Somebody tells me I have to give up the bike and walk a beat, I'll lateral to another department first. I became a cop because I wanted to ride motor.

PCM said...

Motorcop, your kind of bikers are a league of their own.

What you say about cop makes sense, but I didn't know that and actually don't believe it. You got any citation/proof of that? If so, I'd love to have it.

Cops in Peel's England and called Bobbies, directly named after Sir Robert Peel.

I always thought that cop was an American term, based on the copper badge.

Jag, that $114,400 does include everything the dept pays per officer. Medical and pension are the biggest tickets. It's all their on their website (and they claim to have 300 plus 100 civilians... but that's neither here nor there).

PCM said...

That's an interesting point about military people. I'd buy it. But I also think if you told people going into the police force that patrol is an outside job, officers would accept it.

I mean a mail deliverer (in the city) knows they have to walk a push a cart around. That's what the job is. If patrol were foot, well, that's just the way it is.

And let's be honest, the physical demands of walking foot are less than hiking in the army or even a normal shift of waiting tables.

A good chunk of any eight hours on foot is and should be spend chatting with your favorite store owners and drinking coffee. Foot shouldn't be punishment. When it rains, you stay inside.

Don't forget: the maxim that a good cop never gets wet (or goes hungry) was invented when cops walked the beat.

Motorcop said...

I don't have a citation about the COP thing. It's probably something I picked up at the academy or from my dad who was also a cop or maybe from some other cop. I know other cops who believe the same thing. Maybe it's just a myth. From what I understand COP was Peel's own term and the word bobbies was coined by people other than Peel in his honor. I've also heard the copper badge explanation plus one about copper buttons and another that cop was once slang for arrest.

PCM said...

Bobbie, according to books I have, was originally a derisive term in the 1830s, but became affectionate as police gained the trust and appreciation of the public.

I'll keep my eyes open for more on the etymology of cop.

Police Officer said...

After six months in a beat section, here are my thoughts:

1) Foot patrol is damn hard work (particularly in hot or cold weather, and also in the rain or snow).

2) In cities with two person cars there should be an increased focus on one person cars in order to free up officers for two person beat units.

3) Departments should consider strategies for taking and holding ground. Eg. instead of an eight person surveillance team doing a week long project against dealers on a street corner, perhaps the department should assign one uniformed beat officer to that corner for
56 days.

4) There is an over reliance on statistics (oddly enough, to justify the existence of the foot patrol section!) which leads to reduced discretion and increased pressure to write tickets and make arrests. I know I've written a couple of cheap tickets that accomplished nothing other than to piss off Joe Normal.

5) The War on Drugs is detrimental to foot patrol and community relations (I can't walk three blocks without making a drug arrest, which then takes me off the road for hours).

6) I love your "policing green" idea. No one in my service wants to go to the beat section (except for me and a couple other guys). The extra pay might be the key.

Unknown said...

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