The Patrol Function
by Patrick V. Murphy
Patrick V. Murphy
Former Police Commissioner of New York City
Current Director of the Police Policy Board
The United States Conference of Mayors
American policing has improved substantially since a
Presidential crime commission in 1967 identified a number of
fundamental weaknesses. Officers today are better educated,
departments are more representative of the populations they
serve, and there is more restraint in the use of force. Yet,
serious flaws remain.
Specifically, there is much room for improvement in most
departments with regard to organization, management, planning,
policy, and effectiveness. The courage and dedication of
hundreds of thousands of officers, as well as the
professionalism of police administrators, cannot overcome the
organizational flaws that weaken the police, especially with
regard to their contribution to crime control and order
In a democratic society, the responsibility for peace
keeping and law observance rests with the community, not with
the police. Well-trained police are required, but their role is
to supplement and aid community efforts, not to supplant them.
Unfortunately, urban police departments consistently have
accepted a disproportionate share of the responsibility for
maintaining social control. And, relying on police wisdom, the
people have reacted by "not getting involved." However, it is
officer-citizen teamwork that is the basic building block of
Prevention is, by far, the largest component of crime
control, and most crime prevention should be done by the people.
Therefore, the efforts of the people need to be coordinated,
planned, and well-directed. The challenge for the police
administrator, then, is to structure a police department, with
all of its responsibilities and complexities, to assist the
people in exercising social control and protecting themselves.
British research found more than 30 years ago that crime
rates were lowest in villages with a single constable. When one
officer had exclusive responsibility for protecting fewer than
1,000 people, the essential partnership of people and police was
ideally formed. Police responsibility was clearly fixed in one
individual rather than shared among many. The constable, who
had full authority and discretion, became a respected leader.
Results of initiatives taken by the police were easily observed
and appreciated by a grateful community. In turn, the constable
could enjoy the satisfaction of a job well done.
Unfortunately, most U.S. police departments have drifted
away from the organizational structure that allows patrol
officers time for community interaction. Instead, the patrol
car, radio, telephone, computerized dispatch, and unrealistic
expectations for rapid response have made responding to calls
for service the major component of patrol work, not managing
crime prevention as it should be.
A high-ranking official of a large city police department
recently revealed that 90% of patrol officers' time is devoted
to calls for service. And research findings indicate that a
small percentage of such calls involve life-threatening
situations or crimes in progress. What results is insufficient
time on the part of the patrol officer to assist the people to
protect themselves. Therefore, police administrators need to
organize patrol personnel so that they can mobilize citizens
into a force that controls crime and enforces established
No aspect of reorganization is more important than properly
structuring the patrol function. This should begin with a clear
understanding of the purpose of patrol personnel, which is to
provide the leadership to help people protect themselves, their
homes, and their neighborhoods. For the most part, citizens
should be the workers that the police depend on to get the job
done. And, nothing less than the involvement of every
generalist patrol officer (GPO) can generate sufficient
participation of the people.
In addition, a state-of-the-art program of "differential
police response"(DPR) to calls, according to pre-established
priorities, should recapture a large portion of the valuable
time of officers to devote to their fundamental purpose.
Differential police response involves screening calls by
carefully trained operators. Few of these calls require an
immediate dispatch. Most can be satisfactorily resolved by
telephone, delayed dispatch, written information mailed to a
citizen, or a written report mailed from a citizen. A
comprehensive public education program is necessary to assure
the people that the change will not diminish response to actual
THE GENERALIST PATROL OFFICER
The most important position in a police department is the
generalist patrol officer. GPOs manage the contributions of
residents to crime prevention and social control and are the
catalysts that generate citizen volunteer hours for every hour
of officer duty time. They should be information processors,
coordinators, planners, and leaders, because they can make a
critical difference in reducing the anonymity of urban life that
facilitates the success of criminals.
Every rank, specialization, and position within a
department should exist to support the GPO. In the past, law
enforcement's efforts to specialize police functions reduced the
number of patrol officers, which detracted from crime prevention
and helped criminals take control of neighborhoods. Instead,
the move should be for GPOs to get to know their communities.
This can be accomplished by dividing a city into as many
sub-beats as there are generalist patrol officers. In doing so,
the protection of a small population (in the range of 1,000
residents per GPO depending upon crime rate) can be made the
individual responsibility of each. It obviously is easier for
residents to interact with one rather than five officers. Close
officer-citizen teamwork is then facilitated, and maximum
participation of the people working together with their "own"
officer strengthens social control. For urgent matters, when
their "own" officer is not on duty, a beat team colleague can
Officers assigned to a beat should be members of a team
headed by a sergeant, the "neighborhood chief of police." This
sergeant should have maximum flexibility in directing and
scheduling personnel within the constraints of providing
continuous patrol car service as required by department, area,
or precinct policy. Ideally, the beat team will include a
civilian collator/assistant to receive, evaluate, and
disseminate, information--the lifeblood of police work.
Since citizens are dependent on the police to exchange
information with them about crime patterns, drug pushers, and
known criminals, officers should have the responsibility to
obtain reports of crime, suspicious activity, and the behavior
of parolees/probationers and other intelligence from citizens on
their beats. That information must be analyzed and disseminated
to the people. A well-informed neighborhood community will be
better prepared to protect itself and feed back useful
intelligence to the beat team.
Most police work is performed by patrol officers, who are
critical to law enforcement's role in ensuring a free society.
Patrolling is a complex, truly professional level of work.
Properly organizing it within a large department, especially in
areas with high rates of poverty, unemployment, school dropout,
teenage parents, racial discrimination and the other root causes
of crime, is challenging even for the most capable
Mobilizing and assisting the people is the key to crime
control, and prevention is the first priority. Law enforcement
should be a fail-safe, but rarely used, device that kicks into
effect only after prevention has failed.