Fighting crime and the fear of crime: police on foot patrol

Boston police have returned to foot patrol. With the exception of the Boston Patrolmen's Protective Association, which has objected vehemently to the need for some officers to ride in one-person rather than two-person cars (to allow officers to be freed for foot patrol work) , the response in the community has been cautious but supportive. Cautious, because citizens remember with some cynicism an increase of police patrols during previous mayoral campaigns; supportive, because citizens genuinely seem to like having foot patrol officers back in their neighborhoods. Foot patrol officers are also back on the beat in Flint, Mich., where, despite the highest level of unemployment in the country, citizens voted to increase their taxes to pay for more foot patrol officers.

Although it may not be readily apparent, foot patrol departs radically from police orthodoxy. Since the 1930s, police administrators have assigned police to cars just as fast as they could: It has been axiomatic that preventive patrol by automobile deters crime and reduces fear, and that rapid response to calls increases the number of arrests. For many police, foot patrol is reminiscent of a police world which they thought had been left behind - antiquated, inefficient , and venal.

Paradoxically, the current return to foot patrol comes about at a time when police have attained many long-sought goals. They are better managed than ever. Corruption and political influence in policing are minimal, compared with the pre-1960s period. Relief from a variety of functions - voter listing, licensing, ambulance service, and other social and human services - has allowed them to concentrate on crime-fighting. For the most part, they have the equipment and technology they desire - cars, two-way radios, computers, and computer-aided response systems.

What has happened? Why is foot patrol so popular that in many cities politicians, sensitive to citizens' desires, endorse it? Why are some communities willing to increase taxes, irrespective of current economic conditions, to have foot patrol?



* Simply put, people are fed up with daily assaults on their sense of propriety, dignity, and safety. Despite obvious improvements in the honesty and efficiency of police departments, crime has skyrocketed. Fear has leapfrogged over crime as a problem, in some areas so demoralizing citizens that they have given up, moved, or barricaded themselves and bought handguns for self-defense. More constructively, many residents are organizing neighborhood patrols or other community anticrime activities.

Nevertheless, for numerous citizens, their parks, buses, subways, libraries - even shopping centers - are places to be avoided; for others, their own stoops, elevators, and hallways are potential places of terror. Not only the police, but government itself, has appeared impotent in the face of crime and the daily onslaught of incivilities.

Police in cars often appear too busy to help. When police vehicles are seen passing by, citizens do not feel that anything is being done for them; police officers always appear to be going somewhere else. When police park their cars, they rarely leave them to talk to citizens. Instead, they either peer suspiciously from behind closed windows or appear to busy themselves with paper work.

Research has confirmed what communities seem to sense: Patrol by automobile does not deter crime, reduce citizen fear, or increase arrests. Part of the reason it has not reduced fear is that increases or decreases in the level of preventive patrol have simply not been recognized by citizens. Citizens do not feel a police presence when automotive patrol is used.

Foot patrol, on the other hand, is immediately recognized by citizens and serves to reduce fear. The potential of foot patrol for reducing fear has two explanations:

1. Unlike their colleagues in cars, police on foot patrol regularly interact with residents, shopkeepers, ''street people,'' and pedestrians.

2. Foot patrol officers regulate the behavior of people on the street who instill fear in others - drunks, gangs, panhandlers, and disorderly and obstreperous people in general. Citizens get to know foot patrol officers (in Flint, 41 percent of the residents in areas covered by foot patrol knew their foot patrol officers by name), and police are seen by citizens as acting on their behalf to ''serve and protect'' them.

At least two basic questions are left unanswered: First, what can be done to allay fear in areas where foot patrol is not feasible, such as in sparsely populated areas? Second, and more basically, what can be done about crime itself, given that recent studies have found little or weak evidence that foot patrol, as currentlym practiced, reduces crime or increases arrests?

With regard to the problem of fear, in areas not amenable to patrol by foot, police can emphasize patrol activities that increase the quantity and improve the quality of police-citizen contacts. Rather than viewing patrol in cars as an end in itself, police can use vehicles to go from place to place, then get out and make contact with citizens - in shopping centers, churches, homes, schools. Such contact will likely increase the sense of police presence and, similar to foot patrol, reduce fear. Police in at least two communities (Newark, N.J., and Houston) are experimenting with such approaches.

The second problem, preventing crime and increasing arrests, is a more complicated matter. From the police point of view, the failure of police strategies is a disaster. During the 20th century, crime fighting has become their raison d'etre. Police themselves have promulgated the near-certainty that relief from non-law enforcement activities would allow them to concentrate on crime and succeed in bringing it under control - an intuitively reasonable position. Yet research into preventive patrol and rapid response to calls for service has shown that neither has much impact on crime or arrests. (Rapid response has made little difference because most victims wait at least 20 to 40 minutes before calling the police.) The intellectual appeal and reasonableness of preventive patrol and rapid response as anticrime strategies simply sharpens the question: If concentrating police directly on crime does not make any difference to crime and fear levels, what will?

Contrary to what appears intuitively reasonable, the best police approach to crime may be an indirect one. The assumption that police are central to community crime control has led to little emphasis being placed on citizen involvement. Citizens have been seen as passive recipients of professional police crime-control activities.

This professional approach has had at least two negative consequences - conceded by supporters as well as critics of preventive patrol. Initially,, because police officers have been required to patrol and respond to calls, they have had little contact with citizens other than those who called for service. Then, preventive patrol has been unpopular in minority communities. Police strategies that focus on crime have created adverse relations between minorities , especially male youths, and police. Police and law-abiding minorities, lacking day-to-day contact, have developed deep suspicions about each other: Citizens feel abandoned and police feel beleaguered.

Because police have assumed that they were primarily responsible for control of disorder and crime, and by using patrolling approaches that created distance between police and citizens, police haven't taken advantage of the enormous potential for social control that exists in communities and neighborhoods. Citizen patrols have often been seen by police as dangerous and competitive - amateurs doing ''police'' business. Moreover, police estrangement from communities has separated them from the one thing that could improve their effectiveness in solving crimes: gaining information from citizens.

These two ingredients - working closely with communities to increase citizen involvement in control of crime and disorder, and gathering and properly managing and utilizing information from citizens - are central to preventing crime and disorder, and to increasing the number of arrests of wrongdoers. Foot patrol is inherently conducive to such activities. With the added benefit of fear reduction, foot patrol (if adequately managed and exploited) is an attractive alternative to current approaches.

In communities that do not lend themselves to foot patrol, police activities that increase the quantity and improve the quality of police-citizen interaction , and that assist the community to defend itself against crime and disorder, have positive potential. Merely continuing the same old methods of preventive patrol and rapid response to calls for service no longer seems to be a workable option for police.

Citizens have had their fill of crime and disorder. On their own, they are organizing themselves to deal with crime. How much more powerful an effort it would be if the police joined in those activities.

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