Discussion of foot patrol in modern policing may generate images of the beat officer walking the business district or neighborhood, stopping to talk with shop owners and homeowners, and occasionally collaring the neighborhood ruffian. For many, these are not unpleasant images. They reflect a time when trust between law enforcement and the community was high, and a desire to return to the comforting times such thoughts prompt in our collective minds may never have been stronger.
A newly released study by the Police Foundation titled “Engaging Communities One Step at a Time: Policing’s Tradition of Foot Patrol as an Innovative Community Engagement Strategy” offers hope that foot patrol might be far more useful than just a nostalgic reminder of the good old days of law enforcement.
Foot patrol lost favor among police departments with the ready acquisition of patrol cars which provided the ability to patrol far greater territory with far fewer officers and to respond with greater speed to emergencies. Air-conditioning and heating led to rolled-up windows and even further separation from the community as officers were now viewed from afar and always behind the steel structure of a patrol car.
Identifying that earlier research provided mixed results as to the effectiveness of foot patrols, Police Foundation sought to conduct a qualitative study to determine the effects of foot patrol on three key areas: crime reduction, citizen impact, and the impact on officers. The study found several themes across the five different cities using foot patrol that were part of the study group:
- Community relations were improved and the officers conducting them were humanized in the eyes of the community based on community focus groups.
- Effectiveness at problem-solving increased through greater familiarity with the areas patrolled by the foot patrol officers and greater flow of information to the officers from those communities.
- Knowing the community can help de-escalation tactics because of the familiarity of the parties involved.
- The involvement in the community builds an opportunity for officers to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the community, increasing opportunities for dialog during those inevitable times when things do not go well.
- Foot patrol positively affects the officers with a sense of job fulfillment and new appreciation for the members of the community. It allows them contact with large numbers of law-abiding citizens and not just those who are being contacted for law violations.
The report summarizes some of the difficulties in establishing a significant foot patrol presence such as manpower shortages and performance evaluation difficulties, but overall it is clear that there are many positive outcomes. Relationship-building was a cited as a common observation of foot patrol successes among the groups (citizens, police officers, and supervisors). One could argue that given the current tension between law enforcement and many communities, this benefit alone is worth the effort poured into the program.