Police foot patrols: 3 pluses and 3 pitfalls

Police agencies across the country are turning back to foot patrols, which largely went out of favor with the arrival of the radio car — here are three positives and three negatives to consider

Not too long ago, Newburgh (N.Y.) was a quiet little city on the western shore of the Hudson River about an hour north of New York City. Today, however, Newburgh reportedly has one of the highest rates of violent crime in the state as the Bloods or the Latin Kings battle over turf and the growing illegal drug trade. The city with a population of about 28,000 reportedly had 55 shootings last year alone. Almost all were gang-related incidents. 

According to a recent Associated Press article the Newburgh (N.Y.) Police Department has put a significantly increased emphasis on deploying foot patrols to hotspots of criminal activity. “Newburgh’s push to exit squad cars for more frequent foot patrols is part of an effort in the state’s violent crime hotspots to bridge the divide between poor urban communities and law officers suspected of picking unfairly on minorities,” the article said. 

And Newburgh is not alone — police agencies across the country are returning to foot patrols, which largely went out of favor with the arrival of the radio car decades ago. The recent news out of Newburgh offers an opportunity to examine the pluses and the pitfalls of having larger numbers of cops walking the beat. Here are some key considerations, as well as some thoughts on how departments might begin deploying foot patrols. Add your own thoughts in the comments section below. 

The Newburgh (N.Y.) Police Department has put a significantly increased emphasis on deploying foot patrols to hotspots of criminal activity.
The Newburgh (N.Y.) Police Department has put a significantly increased emphasis on deploying foot patrols to hotspots of criminal activity. (AP Image)

1. Citizens get to know their officers and vice versa. 
It is indisputable that foot patrols increase the sheer number of impromptu citizen contacts officers have during a given shift. Certainly, the hard-core criminal element will not be particularly interested in chatting with police officers, but the hard-working and law-abiding citizens who are victimized by criminals will want to talk. 

They will begin again to see officers as people, not authoritarian automatons who possess no feelings. Further, officers on foot patrol will gain a greater appreciation for the fact that the vast majority of citizens actually respect and admire police, potentially increasing department morale. 

2. Officers get a much better understanding of the lay of the land. 
Once a true bond has been formed, those individuals with whom cops have daily conversations may end up being tremendous sources of information about crime and criminals that the police might otherwise never discover. In addition to getting information from citizen contacts, cops who walk the beat vastly increase their knowledge of the neighborhoods they patrol. 

In their book Left of Bang, Patrick Van Horne and Jason Riley describe how baselines and anomalies can help predict an act of violence occurring. Vividly knowing the area of operations can enable cops to almost instantly know when “something’s not quite right.” They will more quickly recognize when someone who is not typically present suddenly appears or when someone who is usually on the street suddenly is no longer there. 

3. Agencies can reduce citizen complaints and frivolous lawsuits. 
With the increased trust and understanding forged by impromptu citizen contacts in scenarios where no report is being taken and no arrest is imminent, the community may become less likely to file questionable complaints or seek a payday from a costly lawsuit. This has not been scientifically proven, but there is plausible anecdotal evidence that investing in foot patrols can pay off for a city’s coffers previously drained by settlements. 

1. It can be more difficult for agencies to clear calls. 
Cities and towns that have high volumes of calls for service face the challenge that officers on foot patrol may not necessarily be available to dispatchers. And even if they are, they may need to walk back to their squad car just to begin rolling toward the location of the incident. Foot patrol officers are generally considered to be out of play for response to calls, but what happens when there’s an officer needs assistance call? Those boots will be sprinting in the direction of the incident. 

2. Some cities are not well suited to foot patrols due to geography. 
Newburgh is four square miles in area, and generally speaking, the gang violence and criminal activity are contained to a relatively small section of that space. There are myriad sprawling suburban cities which cover a hundred or more square miles. 

Crime-ridden neighborhoods in those places can be so spread out that a car is absolutely essential to cover everything. It is simply not an efficient strategy to deploy foot patrols in such cities, and administrators need to be realistic about that fact. 

3. Cops can potentially be more easily targeted for ambush attacks. 
This is the most important point of all. Officers walking the beat might develop a route they generally tend to follow in order to achieve efficiency in their work and in order to meet expectations of merchants who increasingly grow accustomed to a visit at a certain time of day to check in. This can expose those cops to an anti-cop thug who has enough sophistication to observe the pattern and use it to his advantage in setting up an ambush. It is critical for patrol officers to vary their day-to-day activities to prevent becoming predictable. 

While potentially beneficial to community relations and crime prevention, foot patrols are not a panacea. They potentially present some real officer safety hazards that need to be addressed. Foot patrols may be supplemented with the addition of a bike patrol, which is another community policing strategy on the rise in some cities. 

Administrators must take a number of factors into account, asking and answering a series of questions. Is it wise to put officers on sidewalks in areas so engulfed by anti-cop fervor that it has the opposite of the intended outcome and actually creates more animosity among citizens? Does putting officers on foot patrol create an officer safety issue? Does this strategy adversely affect response times for the offices that remain in squad cars? Have we given ample consideration to officer morale about a foot patrol assignment? 

Oscar Wilde once reportedly said, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” Ultimately, the answer for most police departments considering increasing officer presence on the sidewalks as opposed to the streets is to take a very moderate and balanced approach. For example, Baltimore Police Department has reportedly mandated that cops spend at least a half hour of every shift on foot patrol. That seems to be a reasonable compromise that could even have positive health benefits for those officers. 

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