D.C. Police Heeding Calls for Foot Patrols
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
D.C. police officer Alfred Tyler bundled himself in a coat, wool hat and gloves and began making his rounds at a bustling shopping center in the Benning Road area east of the Anacostia River.
On a chilly afternoon last week, Tyler walked from one business to the next, talking to merchants and their customers. "Who is closing the store tonight?" he asked the manager at a clothing shop on Minnesota Avenue NE.
Stopping at a bank that had been robbed recently, Tyler made sure everything was all right. "Everything quiet in here?" he asked.
While most officers were driving from call to call in their squad cars, Tyler was hoofing it on an old-school assignment: the foot beat. Residents across the city have been clamoring for more foot patrols, and they're about to get them.
The new mayor, Adrian M. Fenty (D), and the acting police chief, Cathy L. Lanier, view foot patrols as a critical part of their community-policing strategy -- a way to help police connect with the public at parks and business strips and on busy city blocks.
"Foot beats are a good way for officers to interact and make people feel safe," said Lanier, who began her police career 16 years ago walking a beat in Northeast Washington.
Some criminal justice specialists agreed that foot patrols are good for community relations. But they said research has shown that the tactic does little to cut crime.
"People feel more confident when there are officers around," said John E. Eck, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Cincinnati, who studies community policing. "The evidence it actually reduces crime is slim to none."
Still, Eck said, when coupled strategically with other tactics, foot patrols can be an effective tool for police. They can change perceptions, he said.
The most highly regarded study of foot patrols concluded that in Newark, walking officers brightened residents' attitudes about crime and lifted satisfaction in police services. However, the foot beats had "no effect on recorded crime rates," according to the study, published by the Police Foundation about 25 years ago.
"The public loves them," said Wesley G. Skogan, a political science professor at Northwestern University who studies policing issues. "Hard-nosed police administrators see them of limited utility."
Officers have walked beats for as long as police departments have existed. But over the years, a dependence on patrol cars has changed the way police interact with citizens. Police can cover much more territory on wheels, but that often comes at the expense of getting to know the people they serve. Some say that the loss of that personal connection has contributed to a general mistrust and wariness of police.