Section 4.3: Police Methods

A banner reading "Criminal Justice: An Overview of the System" by Adam J. McKee

In the past, in the United States, the job of a patrol officer and an investigator made up the majority of police work. Patrol officers, who wear uniforms, would walk or drive around the streets of cities in the U.S. They were easy to see, and this was meant to stop crimes from happening because people would think twice before committing a crime if they saw a police officer. They also tried to catch criminals while the crime was still happening.

If these patrol officers couldn’t stop a crime from happening, then it was the job of the investigators. They tried to solve crimes after they happened. They did this by talking to the people who had been affected by the crime, people who had seen the crime happen, and the people they thought had done the crime.

But, starting from the 1960s, research studies started showing that just patrolling and investigating were not enough to handle the problem of crime in America. So, people began to think about how they could improve the way police work was done.

It was only in the early 1990s, though, that this research really started to change the way police work was done. People started to focus on what is called “proactive policing strategies.” This is a fancy way of saying that the police started to take action before crimes happened instead of just reacting after a crime had happened. This meant that instead of just waiting for people to call and tell them a crime had happened, the police started to take steps to prevent crimes from happening in the first place.


Patrol is often referred to as the “backbone” of a police department. Why is this so? It’s because a large portion of a police department’s resources and time goes into patrol. 

Patrol is a strategy in which police officers move around in a specific area, often known as a “beat”, to prevent crime. This strategy dates back to the time of Sir Robert Peel, who established the modern police force in the 19th century. During Peel’s era, most of the patrolling was done on foot, with some officers using horses to get around.

With the advancement of technology, cars were introduced. Police forces nowadays make full use of cars, as they provide significant benefits. The most crucial advantage is that automobile patrol allows a single officer to patrol a much larger area than if they were on foot. Simply put, a police officer in a car can oversee a much bigger geographical area, which means police departments require fewer officers. This results in huge cost savings, making car patrol much more affordable than foot patrol.

Now, how do we judge if patrol operations in a department are effective? They are typically evaluated based on three primary functions. These are:

  1. Responding to calls for service: This means answering when people call the police for help.
  2. Deterrence of crime through a highly visible police presence: This is about preventing crime by making sure people can see police officers around.
  3. Investigating suspicious situations: This involves looking into anything that seems unusual or could be a sign of a crime.

Out of these three, the function of crime deterrence is often debated. The traditional belief, which goes back to Peel’s time, is that if a police officer is seen patrolling an area, it would discourage potential criminals. However, research from the 1970s onwards has shown that random preventive patrol might not have much, if any, effect on crime rates.

The Kansas City Preventive Patrol Experiment 

In the 1970s, researchers in the field of criminal justice started to question the basic idea behind preventive patrol. They wanted to know if preventive patrol really did decrease crime and make people feel safer. They also wanted to find out if the number of police officers on patrol in a certain area affected the amount of crime and how people thought about crime.

They decided to carry out an experiment to find these answers. This experiment was done together with the police department of Kansas City, Missouri, so the study became known as the Kansas City Preventive Patrol Experiment.  The city was divided into 15 beat areas, or patrol zones. These zones were then grouped into three.

For any experiment to be effective, there needs to be a control group. This is a group where nothing changes, and it helps to compare results. So, one group of five zones didn’t change the number of patrol officers.

In the second group, the police completely stopped all preventive patrol. They only went to this area if someone called for help or reported a crime. This is what is known as a “reactive” role.

In the third group, the number of patrol officers was increased to four times the usual number.

The researchers thought that if preventive patrol really worked, they would see more crime in the area with no preventive patrol (the reactive area), no change in the control group, and less crime in the area where patrol was increased.

But the results of the experiment surprised everyone in the policing world. There was almost no difference in the amount of crime or how afraid people were of crime in the different areas. People’s opinions of the police didn’t change either. It seemed like both law-abiding citizens and criminals didn’t even notice the changes.

As expected, these results led to many different opinions. Some people said the results must be wrong and that preventive patrol has always been beneficial. Some said patrol was not a good idea and that the police should focus on other things. Many others suggested improving patrol by changing the way it’s done. One thing almost everyone agreed on was that simply putting more officers on the street would not significantly reduce crime. They believed that a major change was needed.

The Proactive Paradigm Shift

Even though research suggests that simply having uniformed officers present in an area doesn’t do much to prevent crime, that’s not the case with more assertive patrol strategies. Proactive patrol operations shift from being random to targeted.

This means focusing on specific offenders, particular places, and certain types of victims. There are many tactics that fall under this broad approach. These include undercover operations, the use of informants, employing decoys, intensifying patrol in problem areas, and regularly patrolling hot spots, which are areas with high crime rates.

An essential point in the discussion on how to improve patrol is that random patrols may not be very effective because crime doesn’t happen randomly. It might seem fair to give each neighborhood in a city the same amount of police time and resources. However, this approach is not very efficient. 

A smarter way to use resources would be to focus police resources in areas where crime rates are high and use fewer resources in areas with low crime rates. Research has shown that this strategy can indeed have a positive impact on crime rates.

Researchers found that the 911 system received many calls for help from a small number of places. Short periods of intensive patrolling in these high-crime areas successfully reduced robberies and other crimes.

Other strategies have also proven to be effective. For example, the San Diego Field Interrogation Study found that actively questioning suspicious individuals could lead to a reduction in both violent crime and disorder, which means situations where law and order are not maintained.

The Street Crimes Unit in New York City had success with a tactic of using decoys to catch repeat offenders. This involves having an undercover officer pretend to be an ideal or “perfect” victim. This strategy led to a significant increase in the arrests of muggers.

Problem-oriented Policing

In the past, the style of policing in the United States was mainly reactive. The police mainly used preventive patrols and investigations after crimes had happened. Some early attempts at innovating policing methods aimed to be proactive, but they were mainly focused on preventing crime through limited means such as making arrests, issuing summonses, and giving out citations.

However, in the past few decades, there has been a shift in the focus of policing, largely due to two major developments in the way policing is seen by both those who practice it and those who study it. These two developments are Problem-Oriented Policing (POP) and a broader philosophy that includes POP, called Community-Oriented Policing (COP).

Problem-Oriented Policing started with a very important article written by Herman Goldstein in 1979. Goldstein suggested that the main job of the police is to deal with problems in the community. To do this job well, the police would need a larger set of tools and a more sophisticated method for finding, studying, and ultimately solving these problems.

This important article sparked a lot of interest and led to many publications in the newly emerging field of problem-oriented policing. Research indicated something amazing about POP: it actually worked (Braga, 2008).

A key tool in studying community problems is the Problem Analysis Triangle. This tool is used to visually show the interaction between the characteristics of the victim, the characteristics of the location, and the characteristics of the offender.

As pointed out by Spelman and Eck (1989), 10% of crime victims are involved in up to 40% of victimizations, 10% of offenders are involved in 50% of crimes, and about 10% of addresses are the location for about 60% of crimes. This suggests that focusing on a small number of victims, offenders, and locations that have high crime rates can make the most efficient use of limited police resources.

To understand the process of solving problems, it’s helpful to understand what is meant by a “problem.” To understand the types of problems that the police are interested in, it’s helpful to look at the mission of the police. Under the professional model of policing, the focus was almost entirely on “catching bad guys.” Other duties were often considered not part of “real police work.”

Goldstein suggests the following list of major police goals:

  1. to prevent and control conduct that threatens life and property (including serious crime);
  2. to help crime victims and protect people in danger of physical harm;
  3. to protect constitutional guarantees, such as the right to free speech and assembly;
  4. to facilitate the movement of people and vehicles;
  5. to assist those who cannot care for themselves, including the intoxicated, the addicted, the mentally ill, the physically disabled, the elderly, and the young;
  6. to resolve conflicts between individuals, between groups, or between citizens and their government;
  7. to identify problems that have the potential for becoming more serious for individuals, the police, or the government; and
  8. to create and maintain a feeling of security in the community.

Community-oriented Policing

Community-oriented Policing (COP) is a philosophy that encourages organizational strategies that proactively use partnerships and problem-solving techniques to address the conditions that lead to public safety issues such as crime, social disorder, and fear of crime. This philosophy represents a significant shift from traditional policing methods in that it fosters collaborative partnerships. 

These partnerships are formed between the police and the individuals and organizations they serve to develop problem-solving solutions and boost public trust in the police. For these objectives to be achieved, critical changes within departments are necessary, including the realignment of organizational management, structure, personnel, and information systems to bolster community partnerships and proactive problem-solving.

Community policing (as COP is also known) acknowledges that a small group of officers, however dedicated and well-trained, cannot single-handedly solve all crime, delinquency, and disorder problems in a society as vast and complicated as the United States. Public safety problems can rarely be solved by the police alone. 

Community policing, therefore, encourages interactive partnerships with relevant stakeholders. These partnerships, which can involve a broad range of potential partners, are employed to achieve the dual interconnected goals of creating solutions to problems through collaborative problem-solving and improving public trust. A fundamental principle of community policing is that the public should participate in prioritizing and addressing public safety problems (COPS Office, 2014).


Police departments can partner with numerous other government agencies to identify community issues and propose alternative solutions. These agencies can include legislative bodies, prosecutors, probation and parole, public works departments, neighboring law enforcement agencies, health and human services, child support services, ordinance enforcement, and schools. 

Moreover, members of the community – such as volunteers, activists, community leaders, residents, visitors, tourists, and commuters – represent a valuable resource for identifying community concerns. These diverse members of the community can be engaged in achieving specific goals at town hall meetings, neighborhood association meetings, decentralized offices and storefronts in the community, and team beat assignments. Community-based organizations that provide services to the community and advocate on its behalf can be potent partners. For-profit businesses, which have a significant stake in the health of the community, can also be key partners as they often bring substantial resources to address mutual concerns.

Organizational Change

The philosophy of community policing emphasizes modifications in the organization and management of departments, advocating the application of modern management practices to increase efficiency and effectiveness. Community policing focuses on changes in organizational structures to facilitate its adoption and integration throughout the entire department, including its management, personnel, and technology. Such changes can affect the department’s climate and culture, leadership, formal labor relations, decision-making processes, strategic planning, police policies and procedures, organizational evaluations, and transparency.

Line Officer Buy-in

For community policing to be effective, police unions and similar forms of organized labor must be involved in the process and function as partners in the adoption of the community policing philosophy. Involving labor groups in decisions about agency changes can ensure support for the changes necessary for the implementation of community policing. Past experiences have shown that departments that attempt to implement community policing without the support of line officers will almost certainly fail.


This Section delved into the evolution and the effectiveness of various policing methods in the United States, starting from the early days of patrolling to more modern, proactive methods. The concept of patrol, a fundamental element in police work, was explored. With the advent of the automobile, the patrol method evolved from foot to car, which significantly expanded the coverage area of a single officer, translating into considerable cost and resource savings.

The Section also scrutinized the effectiveness of patrol in terms of answering service calls, crime deterrence through visible presence, and investigation of suspicious activities. A significant development – the Kansas City Preventive Patrol Experiment of the 1970s – was discussed, revealing how preventive patrol had little impact on crime rates or citizen fear of crime, debunking long-held beliefs about patrol effectiveness.

The Section then transitioned into the exploration of more targeted and aggressive patrol strategies such as proactive patrols, undercover operations, the use of informants, and frequent patrols of “hot spots”. It revealed that crime is not random, and more efficient use of police resources can be achieved by focusing on high-crime areas.

Further, the discussion turned towards problem-oriented policing (POP) and community-oriented policing (COP). POP emphasized understanding and solving community problems, utilizing the Problem Analysis Triangle to depict interactions between victims, locations, and offenders. Community policing, on the other hand, stresses the importance of partnerships between police and community stakeholders for problem-solving and trust-building.

The Section concluded with a discussion of the crucial elements needed to implement community policing effectively. These included collaborative partnerships, organizational change within police departments, and the buy-in of line officers. The take-away is the realization that policing methods have evolved over time, moving from reactive to more proactive, community-focused approaches.


[Back | Contents | Next]

Last Updated:  06/07/2023

This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

Open Education Resource--Quality Master Source License

Print for Personal Use

You are welcome to print a copy of pages from this Open Educational Resource (OER) book for your personal use. Please note that mass distribution, commercial use, or the creation of altered versions of the content for distribution are strictly prohibited. This permission is intended to support your individual learning needs while maintaining the integrity of the material.

Print This Text Section Print This Text Section

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.