Blast: How much time does the average beat officer spend on patrol and how effective is that time?

John Blundell in Association Management Quarterly, Summer 2008

Blundell’s Blast

How much time does the average beat officer spend on patrol and how effective is that time?

The answers will shock you.

Most estimates of time spent on patrol are above 10% but below 20%. Those are not misprints: between ten and twenty!

And how effective is that time? Well officers patrol in pairs and mostly engage with each other. Go watch a pair – if you can find one! They will be totally absorbed in each other discussing holidays, hobbies, partners, colleagues, superiors and so on.

They might as well not be on patrol for all the good they are doing.

Officers in cars are even worse. They are totally cocooned by metal and glass. One US city did an experiment. It split its streets into three zones; it left car patrols the same in one zone, reduced it to zero in a second zone and doubled it in the third zone. Yes, you guessed it. Crime figures did not move one jot.

Cops in pairs offer other problems: they are more likely to be aggressive to peaceful citizens than a solo officer; and they are more likely to be injured. Let me explain. An officer on his/her own will quickly call for back up; officers in pairs tend to be more macho and more prepared to take risks.

So what is the answer? Is it lots more police?

No, we have plenty of officers; we just need to deploy them better, give them responsibility and hold them accountable. We also need patrol, the beat, to be the core and not something you do for a couple of years before becoming a detective say.

So if you made me Chairman of a Police Authority what would I be looking for in my Chief Constable?

First she (I would almost certainly select a lady) would make patrol the main function and the Deputy Chief Constable would be an officer who had come up from the beat.

Next, patrol would be on foot and by officers operating solo. Such officers would spend 90% of their time outside interacting with the public.

Then small groups of officers would be given long-term (three to five years) responsibility for a piece of territory. They would be encouraged to get deep into the fabric of the community, to gain the trust of hundreds of people.

Police chiefs in the USA who have re-established the beat tell me that after a few months the amount of high grade intelligence coming in from patrol officers develops into a tsunami.

How come? Well the policing we see on TV and read about in books is not real – that’s why we call it fiction.

In reality 90% plus crime is solved by people snitching on people not by brilliant detective work.

If your officers are in cars or on big bikes or are yacking away to each other in a zone of their own or are just not out there then lines of information simply do not exist.

The solo officer who regularly stops to chat with corner shop owner or the pub landlord sweeping up his yard or the citizen exercising his dog builds vast networks who in turn have their networks. That officer is suddenly close to many thousands of eyes and ears and it becomes so much easier to pass on valuable leads.

Then my Chief would stop centralising and closing small stations. And she would do the very opposite: decentralise and open local stations.

I often stop officers and engage them in conversation, albeit briefly as they have a serious job to do. Two of my most memorable exchanges went as follows:

Approaching two officers in central Westminster after a week of demos in Parliament Square:

Me: Excuse me officers. I’m taking some visiting friends from the USA on a walk today. Should we avoid Parliament Square?

Officer: Dunno mate! We’re from Catford.

They were as much tourists as my American friends.

Approaching a solo officer again in central Westminster:

Me: Are you ok? I mean you are alone which I never see. Has something happened to your partner?

Her: I’m fine thank you. I much prefer being alone. I get to talk to people. I get to look around. I don’t have to put up with endless chit chat.

To my mind she was doing what all beat officers should be doing but I never saw her in my neighbourhood again!

We emphatically do not need more officers.

If we just doubled their time out there and put them out solo (except when there are clear dangers) those two measures alone would quadruple police presence. And if we gave them long term responsibility for a patch and held them accountable that would be even better!

John Blundell is Director General & Ralph Harris Fellow, The Institute of Economic Affairs.

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