The benefit of assigning police officers to pound the beat — walking regular rounds through neighborhoods — has long been debated. Now recent research on foot patrols across Philadelphia offers some insight.
The research was conducted by Jerry Ratcliffe, chairman of Temple’s Department of Criminal Justice and a former officer with London’s Metropolitan Police.
“We found that foot patrols in violent crime neighborhoods in Philadelphia were able to reduce violent crime over the summer by 23 percent. Unfortunately, what we discovered was that when the foot patrols were removed, violent crime returned to the neighborhood and to some degree the level of crime went back to where it had been before.”
The research is based on an experiment during the summer of 2009 when — for three months — about 200 Philadelphia officers were assigned to foot patrols in the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods from Tuesday morning to Saturday night.
In addition to the double-digit drop in violent crime, arrests increased 13 percent.
Ratcliffe said he’d hoped for more long-term benefits — such as a sustained reduction in crime even after the patrols stopped.
“It very much depends on what the police officers do,” he said. “So if officers engage in speaking to potential offenders, if they do pedestrian stops, if they do traffic stops, that seems to be one of the effective mechanism that signals to the neighborhood– that the police are there, that they’re active, and that has a great deterrence effect.”
Since the 1980s, the prevailing belief has been that while foot patrols can strengthen the community’s view of police and reduce the fear of crime, getting officers to pound the pavement doesn’t actually prevent crime.
Ratcliffe said his research may push police and criminologists to adopt a more positive view of the value of foot patrols in gathering intelligence and preventing crime.
The findings will be published in February in the journal Criminology.