Why foot patrol matters (and how to do it well)

A passionate foot patrol officer can impact a beat positively by improving the public perception of an agency


In the 1990s, “community policing programs” too often bastardized traditional foot patrol, turning officers into nothing more than temporarily funded, street-level public relations cops who were discouraged from performing actual policing.

What this myopic view of foot patrol missed was the fact that while “community policing” is the natural outcome of traditional foot patrol, policing is not the natural outcome of every “community policing program.”

Most Important Trait of the Great Foot Patrol Officer

The late officer Jeff Graves and his son officer Heath Graves of the La Crosse Police Department walking the beat. (Photo/Dan Marcou)
The late officer Jeff Graves and his son officer Heath Graves of the La Crosse Police Department walking the beat. (Photo/Dan Marcou)

The most important trait of a great foot patrol officer is to possess a sincere passion to do it. It should never be assigned as a punishment, or you may be punishing your community more than the officer.

A passionate foot patrol officer can impact a beat positively as they improve the public perception of an agency. Public contacts by an active officer can be as simple as a friendly greeting or as complex as a Terry stop leading to multiple felony arrests.

Speaking of arrests…

Proactive Policing is Unavoidable

Walking a beat regularly allows you to get to know the good and bad people who live and work in your area. One common arrest made by alert foot patrol officers occurs when they spot a “frequent flyer,” subtly run a computer check, verify an outstanding warrant, call for back-up and maneuver into a position of advantage before the suspect is even alerted to their presence.

Experienced officers will find themselves increasingly at the right place at the right time to discourage or interfere with the intended actions of criminals inclined to commit robbery, theft, vandalism, rape, open market drug sales and even murder.

For example, one officer, on one of those quiet nights when sound seems to travel miles, heard a muffled scream and repeated door slams. The officer urgently ran toward the noise and broke up an abduction/rape in progress.

High-Profile or Low-Profile Patrol

While on patrol, officers can choose to observe an area in a low-profile manner from the upper level of a parking ramp, a fire escape, the opening of an alley, by stepping into some shadows, viewing activity from around a corner in the reflection of storefront windows, or by stepping into the doorway of a store front. Minor or major violations will often occur right in front of you, allowing for quick intervention and apprehension.

You can also choose high-profile patrol, walking sidewalks and conducting walk-throughs of bars and businesses. This approach will have a crime suppression aspect to it, but you will also walk up on drug deals, disturbances, wanted persons, underage-drinkers, vandalisms and thefts in progress. Although you will be visible, you will still arrive suddenly and to many, quite unnoticed. If desirable, go low profile until proper back-up is summoned.

Important note: Approaches to trouble in progress should be made from the opposite side of the street, giving you a better perspective of the scene on approach. You will often be invisible to suspects who are experiencing tunnel vision, increasing your available reaction time. Foot patrol is safer and even more effective when two officers are working as a team.

Broken Windows Tactics

The “Broken Windows Theory” was officially put forward by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in an article in 1982 and put into practice by the New York City by Police Commissioner William Bratton and Mayor Rudy Giuliani. This tactic is credited for returning the rapidly back-sliding Metropolis to its former glory.

This philosophy allows police officers to proactively address small problems at ground level to positively impact the quality of life of a city. Foot patrol officers are encouraged to deal with vagrants, small-time drug dealers, ordinance violations and vandals. Paying attention to developing problems can prevent major problems like vast homeless tent cities, open air drug markets and riots. A cop on foot can even, on occasion, stop the alcohol or drugged-impaired driver before he kills a family of four. They can break up an argument, preventing a homicide.

Nooks and Crannies

Even if you do not have a walk beat there are nooks and crannies that invite you to park your squad and take a stroll. In doing so you can identify escape routes, gang graffiti, burnt out lights, open doors and damaged locks. (To criminals, previously burglarized or robbed businesses, are like blood in water is to sharks. They are seemingly beckoned to strike them again.)

“Our Cop”

By working the same beat regularly at ground level you will develop a relationship with the people on the beat, who will begin referring to you as “our cop.” You will become an integral part of the neighborhood you police. Respect is not achieved by being the unwavering officer friendly and avoiding enforcement action. It is done by treating good and bad people with dignity and respect while you police fairly.

A Certain Toughness Required

Foot patrol done right requires a measure of toughness. There will be times you will walk up on fights, domestics and crimes in progress. The foot patrol officer should have the strength, skill and stamina to not only walk for eight hours straight, but also to prevail during resistance and foot pursuits.

It’s Specialized Policing

Foot patrol needs to be a viewed as specialized policing. Officers should be chosen for their:

  1. Desire;
  2. Fitness;
  3. Communication skills;
  4. Tactical skills;
  5. Ability to thrive with very little supervision.

Conclusion

Foot patrol is sometimes literally a walk in the park, while other times it’s a walk in the dark. However, it’s best performed with a high-level passion coupled with a constant vigilance. Then, just like the song says, you just put one foot in front of the other.

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