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by Peter Moskos

December 16, 2011

Back to the Future

Back in 1829 London, Robert Peel and Company said that every police officer, "should be able to see every part of his beat, at least once in ten minutes or a quarter of an hour." That's a pretty good "response time." Craaazy, I thought. But is it?

I think there are 6,000 miles of streets in New York City. I know there are about 8 million people, and 35,000 police officers. Could we not just give every police officer 1,000 feet of street and 230 people to be responsible for? For some beats this would be less than one building. Any crime that happens on your 1,000 feet or to or by one of your 230 people would be your responsibility.

Sure, make it bigger or smaller for population density and crime rate and whatever else you want. And I understand that while on duty each officer would have to patrol six beats to make up for officers not on duty. But with beats that small, is it too much to ask for? Or if you prefer, just work with existing patrol officers and double the size of the beats. Still doesn't seem like too much.

I know it's crazy and would never work.... but why not?

Seriously, where have all the officers gone? And wouldn't it better to have a police officer take responsibility for me and my block rather than have two strangers show up 20 minutes after I call 911?


Anonymous said...

Is this for real?

Who would investigate homicides, bank robbiers, rapes and all manner of past crimes?

Who would execute arrest warrants?

Who would use the bloodhounds to find the missing children?

Who would process crime scenes?

Who would defuse bombs?

Who would look for stolen cars?

Who will lead, manage and evaluate these cops?

What if I get assigned the fat, dumb lazy cop who calls in sick all the time, or the dumb rookie, or the guy at the end of his career who just wants to eat sandwiches all day?

What if something happens when my cop is off duty, which is about 70% of the time?

I don't want to buddy up with my cops unless it's incidental to something else, like I'm a shop owner or a teacher with some at-risk kids.

I don't care if they're strangers. When I call, I want at least two cops to come, I want them to come quickly, preferably in a car, and I want them to act professionally and courteously and know what they're doing. I want them to then decided if specialists are necessary, and I want there to be a cadre of these specialsits available to help me.

That is as much policing as knowing your beat. And those two strangers, if they're any good, should know their beat really well in any case. If they don't know me, I won't feel bad, since I mind my own business and don't have much occasion to deal with police. I'd expect them to know the local criminals, however.

For that matter, I don't want to know my firemen, either. I want them to get to my house fast and put the fire out.

PCM said...

But yeah, I'm for real. OK, maybe not 100% but 75% for real. The extra 25% is just to get people thinking. Does it real make sense to have half of all police officers sitting in a car waiting to respond after it's too late? Might there not be a better way?

As Carl Klockars said, "It makes about as much sense to have police patrol routinely in cars to fight crime as it does to have firemen patrol routinely in fire trucks to fight fire."

Police are not like firefights and paramedics. If you think otherwise you've drunk the Kool Aid about police rapid response. 98 times out of 100, it doesn't work (for police, that is. I'm not talking about fires and heart attacks.)

You can have all your specialized units and still have a beat cop.
But yes, I am assuming that a old fashioned beat cops would prevent some of the crime so it wouldn't have to be investigated.

We may love the idea of specialization, but half the time the detective is just sitting in the office, waiting for the phone to ring. There's no reason a beat cop couldn't do many of the investigations. Crimes are solved (which is not as good as a crime prevented) by people snitching. So the real question is who is somebody going to snitch to. The answer is the cop they know.

[I fully admit there is a need for specialized police officers, like the bomb squad. I just don't think specialization needs to gobble up half the police force.]

You're always going to need a few cops in cars to back up other cops and respond to the (surprisingly rare) urgent crime in progress.

If your cop is off duty, he or she will deal with it when they return. If it's urgent (which it rarely is) you call 911, just like you always do. When most people call the police, there hasn't been a crime. There is a problem.

Most police today (there are some exceptions) do not have a great deal of knowledge about people on their beat. And it is this knowledge that I want police to regain. But all we really ask of police is to stay out of trouble, respond after the fact, and make a arrests and write a few tickets and other forms.

Too much paperwork. Not enough real policing.

See this op-ed I wrote for more of my defense of foot patrol.

Anonymous said...

My understanding is the system you (sort of) propose is practiced in Japan. Is this so?

PCM said...

I have no idea. I should. But I don't.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the response. I'm not *sure,* but my hazy recollections of reading Karl van Wolferen's "The Enigma of Japanese Power," along with some literature on the Japanese legal system, does incline me to think so. It may not be so intrusive as one cop responsible for x00 people, but the similarities are there.

Anon 2:30 AM