The Police

IV. Police Operations

A. Police Patrol

Patrol has long been considered the “backbone” of policing, as this is where almost every police officer gets his or her “street experience.” This experience on the street with citizens is vital in shaping the outlooks and views of the police officer. While many patrol officers will go on to supervisory or investigative positions, this starting point creates shared experiences and facilitates socialization with fellow officers. An important question is, what are the major factors that influence a patrol officer’s behavior? Although officers experience similar situations, their responses may differ due to the complexities and special circumstances of interactions. They soon learn that they cannot enforce all laws, and as Kenneth Culp Davis (1975) observed, the police must use discretion and selective enforcement.

Written guidelines or policies direct police officers’ activities, reactions, and behavior. Policies are based on relevant laws and presumably best practices. They are directives that provide members of the organization with sufficient information so that they can successfully perform their day-to-day operations. Some agencies provide their officers with very detailed policies, while others have promulgated more general policies but have supplemented those with detailed in-service training. While officers are allowed discretion with specified boundaries, it is an important research question to determine what factors explain why police officers respond differently to the same conditions.

For example, the process of forming suspicion has been a topic that has received relatively little attention in the research literature. Jonathan Rubinstein (1973) was one of the first scholars to thoroughly discuss the formation of suspicion. He notes the following:

Many of the things the officer is looking for are a product of prior situations, a consequence of events about which he knows nothing, although he often makes assumptions about some of them. . . . While the patrolman is looking for substantive cues indicating flight, fear, concealment, and illegal possession, he is also making judgments based on his perception of the people and places he polices. (pp. 255, 257)

After an exhaustive review of the literature, the National Research Council (2003) concluded that a suspect’s social class, gender, as well as other social factors do not explain variance in behavior in police–citizen interactions.

An important area of police behavior to address is the foot pursuit. Similar to vehicular pursuits, these activities were not regulated until the 1990s. Around that time, it became apparent that officers and suspects were unnecessarily injured or put in situations that resulted in unnecessary force and deadly force because they abandoned proper practices and went on foot pursuits alone, or were separated from other officers in an attempt to corner or head off a fleeing suspect. Without proper communication, or a plan, officers put themselves in dangerous situations, which can result in crossfires and unnecessary force.

It appears that officers’ beliefs and prior experiences strongly influence their responses to citizens. Perhaps the cognitive theorists are correct in arguing that officers learn by experience, and that the relative power of that learning is influenced by one’s degree of familiarity and repeated associations in a fashion similar to the theory of differential association. In other words, these developed schemas form a mental model and illusory correlation that strongly influence a person’s responses to people and places in future encounters (Alpert, MacDonald, & Dunham, 2005). This is all extremely important because officers’ behavior creates an image for a police department, and supervisors must manage how the officers act and respond to situations. While the patrol function forms what has been called the backbone of policing, perhaps it is the first-line supervisors who form the nervous system of the agency. The patrol officers are the ones closest to the community and know the most about the people and places they police. It is they who are crime fighters, community policing officers, and problem solvers—all at the same time. It is the supervisor who directs and manages their activities.

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