Patrol Tactics: What Works Best?

Like it or not, police work is a results-oriented profession. I once heard a veteran officer comment that police work is the only profession where you don’t have to “produce to get a pay check.” During a PBA clam bake, where the beer was flowing freely, this guy was contrasting cops to piece workers who get paid based on how many “widgets” they make per hour or day, insurance sales people who have to sell a certain number of policies to generate income commissions, and lawyers and doctors who must bill for so many hours or see X number of patients to earn a living. “I get paid just as much as the next cop, and I don’t write any tickets or make any unnecessary arrests—I just take the calls they give me. I do as little as possible, and I make just as much as the cop who writes 70 movers a month or makes five collars a week. Plus, I don’t have to worry about getting sued.”

In a way, he was right. Surprisingly, he made it to retirement. Not surprisingly, he passed away after six years of luxurious pension living from cirrhosis of the liver.

Ultimately, departments are judged by how well they control crime in their respective communities. No one can argue that the NYPD under Commissioner William Bratton transformed the city. It wasn’t that many years ago that New York City was known more for subway muggings, street-corner purse snatchings and panhandlers than for evenings on Broadway, late night cappuccinos in Little Italy and carriage rides through Central Park.

CompStat: High-Tech Pin Mapping
Indeed, the “city that never sleeps” can now pride itself as the “safest big city in America.” How did they improve the safety of their city? CompStat—the concept of targeting police resources to fight crime strategically—really revolutionized police patrol functions. CompStat began under the Rudy Giuliani administration and was overseen by Commissioner Bratton and Deputy Commissioner Jack Maple.

For officers who’ve heard the term but don’t know its meaning, CompStat is not a computer system or a software package. In fact, no one is even sure if the term is short for Computer Statistics, Comparative Statistics or Computer Comparison Statistics. The four cops who developed the program in 1994 needed an eight-character term to save their conceptual crime-fighting program on their computer, came up with the name on the fly, and it stuck.

In very simple terms, CompStat is high-tech pin mapping. Each week, all 76 precincts compile crime information (victim info, suspect profiles, time and location of the occurrence, and other crime-specific details) and forward it to the CompStat unit where it’s loaded into a citywide database. The data are analyzed, and a weekly report is generated. Meetings are then held twice weekly with officers from all units to review the info and discuss ways to combat crime in specific areas.

Two very interesting twists were also added to the CompStat concept that allow it to work so successfully. First, it doesn’t just focus on the seven major crimes (e.g., robbery, rape, murder, etc.) that are reported to the FBI via the Uniform Crime Reporting Index. It includes pertinent information on minor arrests (e.g., gun possession, prostitution, etc.) and summons activity for those quality of life offenses, such as public drinking, public urination, panhandling, loud radios and disorderly conduct. Officers are encouraged to engage in aggressive enforcement of all statutes to restore a sense of order and to ensure that the type of behavior described here is deterred.

Secondly—and in my humble opinion, the key that allows CompStat to work so well—is that the NYPD policies that allow the individual commanders expanded responsibility, authority and discretion over their troops were revised. Bosses now can assign officers (using a variety of enforcement techniques, such as plainclothes and unmarked cars) to hot spots where the most criminal activity is taking place. It’s this zero tolerance for any type of anti-social behavior and the flexibility to deploy officers to those areas where the incidents are happening that make CompStat so successful. Of course, This also makes it controversial. With more aggressive enforcement comes allegations of “too much police presence” or heavy-handedness by officers. But in many cities, the CompStat concept is working well.

Community-Oriented Policing

At the other end of the blue spectrum is the innovative but sometimes unfocused Community-Oriented Policing (COP) concept. In some cities, the original model, where officers network with business leaders, neighborhood groups and school officials, has been expanded to include activities that have nothing to do with arresting criminals or crime suppression.

I’ve heard from officers who have been detailed to “seeds and weeds” programs where they’re assigned to plant flowers and trim lawns. Some have been assigned to store-front substations where, instead of booking sheets and fingerprint cards, they’re issued city forms to help businesses file variances with the Zoning Board or cut through the red tape with the public utility division. Perhaps the ultimate stretch of the COP concept took place in Colorado where one police chief put all his officers in blue blazers so their guns wouldn’t show and changed their titles to “agent” because “officer” sounded too authoritative. Nevertheless, in some communities, COP works.

Random Beat Patrols

Where does this leave the traditional form of policing—random beat patrols? Nathan Iannone, hailed as the grandfather of police patrol and the author of Principles of Police Patrol, outlines the purposes of beat patrol: to prevent criminal activity; to maintain peace and good order; and to protect persons, their property and their welfare. According to Iannone, beat patrol is most effective when it’s irregular or random: “Aggressively patrolling your beat and investigating suspicious persons, things and incidents, and checking the security of property, minimizes opportunities for criminals to break the law.”

The Future of Patrol Tactics

During my 20-year span as a cop in upstate New York, I saw periods of both traditional and community-oriented policing. My early years as a beat cop were right out of Iannone’s book: irregular, random and aggressive patrolling and investigating suspicious persons, things and activities. My later years as a first- and second-line boss saw the transformation into more community-oriented policing concepts, such as directed patrol, or parking your squad car and doing foot patrols in the business districts or malls during the high pedestrian times of day.

I can recall many times when calls for service were stacked up with some units receiving three or four calls at a time and handling them on a priority basis. Bosses became backup units. During those times, community policing fell by the wayside.

I retired just before the CompStat model was developed, but I predict that as departments are pressed to do more with less and as gasoline prices continue to rise, the focused CompStat-style policing method will become the preferred manner of police patrol.

So what does all this mean to the beat cop?  It means day-to-day contacts probably won’t involve spending quality time with mall shoppers or talking with Little Johnny about his school civics’ project. It will mean conducting field interviews with street skells, checking out suspicious persons and vehicles in high crime areas—all based on reasonable suspicion and/or probable cause, of course.

It will also require greater tactical awareness. A focused, crime suppression/reduction approach via criminal apprehensions will probably place you in the company of more badguys than law-abiding citizens. Instead of getting close to the nice folks at the mall and chatting it up with local merchants, you’ll have to focus on other things, like the reactionary gap and the I-stance when conducting field interviews, remembering relative positioning as you engage in your personal contacts and tactical vehicle operations when responding to crimes in progress. It’s something to think about. Until next month, stay safe.


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