In Praise of the Beat Cop

Before I became a Professor of criminal justice, I walked the beat. Hard as it is to imagine, foot patrol was once a cutting-edge best practice for police work. When Sir Robert Peel established the first police force in London in 1829, he instructed his “Bobbies”: “It should be understood, at the outset, that the principal object to be attained is ‘the Prevention of Crime.’ ” To do so, Peel invented the concept of foot patrol. Officers were to walk their beat so that they could be seen every 15 minutes.

When I walked the beat, drug dealers were shocked to see me. “Five-oh,” lookouts would sing, and then add with surprise, “on foot!” I remember a woman leaving her house before dawn, taking one look at me, and overcome with emotion, exclaiming, “God bless you two, angels in blue! Thanks for all your work! It’s so good to see you out here.”

Today, most police chiefs say foot patrol is impossible because there aren’t enough officers to go around. Nonsense. There aren’t fewer officers than there used to be. It’s just that officers today are assigned differently, in specialized units or riding around in cars chasing radio calls.

Despite what most people think—including many police officers—real police work is not about zooming in from afar to arrest a criminal before he runs away. It rarely works that way. Bottom-up knowledge is essential for what is, essentially, a top-down bureaucracy. Foot patrol officers know their neighborhood because they walk it. Beat cops watch young people grow up, get jobs or get in trouble. They learn to anticipate potential crimes. They learn to work with the good people who are present in even the worst neighborhoods. Officers in cars deal only with criminals and victims, and tend to think the worst of everybody.

Police officers resist foot patrol because walking is bottom-of-the-barrel duty. That’s a shame. Only an officer on foot or bike can tell the difference between a group of residents enjoying themselves on a stoop and another group causing trouble. A foot officer keeps the fabric of a neighborhood together. A patrol car responds to pick up the broken pieces.

For foot patrol to once again be the method of real police work, there needs to be a change in police culture. For foot patrol needs to be desirable, more needs to be done than putting young officers on a street corner to wait for the next academy class to push them into cars. This only cements the notion that foot patrol is a burden and something to avoid.

Yes, police response time would increase. But so what? Response time isn’t as important for police as it is for fire trucks and ambulances. Understanding what makes a neighborhood tick is more important than knowing the cycle of timed lights. Currently about half of all police are on patrol, which too often means sitting in a car waiting for the radio.

The idea of “policing green” can change all of that. It can change police attitudes because it gives patrol officers a choice: car, bike or foot. If officers don’t grab the car keys, they can pocket the gas money they didn’t burn. Just as overtime pay drives discretionary arrests, extra pocket money could change the very culture of police patrol. Effective foot patrol needs officers who want to walk foot. Luckily, the money is already there. It’s just being burnt up. Literally.

An extra $25 per shift adds up to more than $5,000 a year. This would be an instant 10 percent raise for new NYPD officers, the NYPD would save money, the public would get the foot officers they want, police would better understand the relationship between cars and pedestrians, and, last but not least, it is good for the environment.

THIS ESSAY WAS ADAPTED FROM COP IN THE HOOD (PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS).