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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
Washington, DC

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 maintenance.


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 crime control.

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 community values.


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 emergencies.


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 assist residents.


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 administrators.

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.

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