What Happened to the Beat Cop

beat cop

The image of the beat cop is a patrol cop on foot ( this would be a dream for us in the United States) or the cop on a horse. The Andy Taylor of the big city or the small town walking the streets, making friends with the neighborhood kids and leaving the jailhouse key so the local drunk can sober himself up behind bars is whimsical at best and wishful thinking in a world that never existed.  

The beat cop of the mid-to late 20th century rode around in a patrol car and still ended up in cop related shootings. The beloved television series Adam-12 season 1, episode 17 from the late 1960s depicts a Los Angeles rookie cop killing a suspect in the dark of night after the patrol car was fired upon. The torment he felt afterward and the questions, why? The suspect was a teenager. Adam-12 was based on true incidents. The difference between then and now is that there were no riots in the streets. But then we don’t know if the suspect was a person of color.

In doing my research for this article I stumbled upon this 1976 documentary   “LAPD: The Way It Was”. The beat cops were in their cars.  Maybe Los Angeles isn’t a “beat cop” type of city. No one walks here. Everyone lives in their cars. So why not the police? 

What does it mean to be a “beat cop”? I looked up the definition of beat cop. The urban dictionary defines beat cop as a “police officer who walks, rides, cycles, or drives in a specific neighborhood, known as a “beat.” Because the officer routinely patrols in the same area, he or she becomes well-known in the community, creating a positive relationship between law enforcement and the community”.

“Neighborhood residents will usually feel comfortable approaching the beat cop to talk about issues in the community, and they may be more inclined to report problems when they feel like they have a personal connection with the department.”

It’s not a car thing. It’s a communication thing. The question is does the beat cop still exist? Do we still have the T J Hooker good cops out there? Over the years television has given us a romanticized version of the dedicated cop. The cops we love to love or love to hate, thinking of them as dirty but good . But we come back for more, watching rerun after rerun wishing our local police were the hero Frank Serpico tied in a neat little bow. But the whole thing has gone to political shit or so it seems and the police seem to be the enemy and are nameless and faceless and friendless officers of the law and there is no community or trust between officer and civilian or so it seems.  

So what happened to the “beat” cop, the Andy Taylor of the community? Did it ever exist? The cop with the Irish brogue, or the officer who our kids knew because he or she was always outside the school at 3pm. The officer you want to approach, not the one you cross the street from when you see them or worse yet wonder and worry why they are behind you when you are in your car. 

What has happened to the beat cop? I have not seen a police officer walking around patrolling our neighborhood in many years? Instead of beat cops, we have traffic agents that constantly ticket people for trying to shop locally. Instead of beat cops we have police officers whipping around our beaches on those terrible vehicles that reek of gasoline. This past Saturday two different vehicles passed us over 10 times. They just travel back and forth, back and forth. 

Law enforcement will become a reality as folks share information with someone that they trust implicitly. “Officer friendly” will create an atmosphere of trust and cooperation. This would be a great start on the road to recovery.

Does taking the cops off the street reduce crime? 

In some areas, police officers were taken off their beats and placed into cars to combat corruption. After the 1970s Knapp Commission investigations, New York City took most of its beat cops off of the street and placed them in cars. This was in an effort to remove them from the temptations of being corrupted.  One of Rudy Giuliani measures to decrease crime was to reintroduce the beat cops back into the city. So far, this has had mostly positive results. 

I took my search to Reddit and the answers were mixed. Taking the cops off the street did not foster a sense of community or trust. Nor did it do anything to prevent crime. It just created an “us versus them” environment. But then again small towns and cities are different. The sentiment is there is a need for more police in the cities and high crime areas. The replies were from both civilians and police. 

I think there’s a difference between big cities where you can walk a foot post, and suburbs (even very populated ones) where you can’t possibly patrol on foot. Where possible, getting out of the car and walking around is great community relations, but a lot of places don’t work for that by either geography or call volume.

I work graveyard. My area is 30 sq miles. 80% of my shift is me going call to call because family members don’t know how to behave themselves, or people point guns at store clerks or other incidents that require my attention. This idea of walking around and getting to know people isn’t going to happen on my shift.

In all honesty, I don’t have time to get out and walk my beat (which actually is 6 beats put together but don’t get me started on that). My zone is approximately 2 miles North to South and 6 miles East to West. In my district there are 6 such zones, most of them bigger than mine, for approximately 85 square miles, most of which is encompassed by major city streets. There are approximately 220,000 people living in my district at last count. Where I work is mainly poverty stricken section 8 housing. I work with 3 other officers on my zone for 8.5 hrs a day. Our zone had the highest number of homicides in the entire city last year. I don’t have time to get out of my car and walk around a neighborhood while I’m on duty, even though I would love to. I’m too damn busy hopping from run to run to eat lunch most days. In the downtime that I do have, I run traffic in an effort to find dope and guns to try to help make the area as safe as I can. So yeah things have changed. You can say “crime is down” but in my opinion it’s really not. Come work where I do or where a lot of these guys on this forum do and you’ll see that the crime never stops.  

Chicago still has them big time. See them constantly down town and near sports arenas and the areas around them.

And it seems like things really have not changed in some places although this one Reddit user seems to think they have. 

If you ever get the opportunity to talk with a retired cop from the sixties and seventies, I strongly recommend it. It’s…eye opening. I talked with a pair of old men a few years back who turned out to be retired LAPD officers. To hear them tell it, officers in their day just did not tolerate resistance of any kind. Period. They told me flat out that if a guy they were arresting tried to fight back, they would put him in a chokehold and throw him to the ground. If he was lucky. If he wasn’t, or he was particularly beligerent, he was introduced to those big old 26 inch straight batons they used to carry. They claim they never did that, but knew a few guys who did. And Jesus, the stories that their FTO’s told them? Now THOSE were crazy. The guys who trained them were on the job back when it was still legal and encouraged to shoot somebody just because they were a felon in flight. People really have no idea how good they have it these days.

What makes good policing and would adding more police solve this complicated problem surrounding trust and crime? It is a double-edged sword. 

Morgan Williams and his colleagues turned to the tools of economics to try and provide some evidence to help inform the conversation. He recently released research that supports the case for police reform while also reminding us why police are important for public safety.  Williams is an economist at NYU’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.

Bottom line, the picture the economists’ data sketches out is complicated. On the one hand, Black communities generally appear to benefit from larger police departments when it comes to lowering the homicide rate and the rate of other serious crimes. But their data also shows these findings don’t seem true for cities with the largest Black populations. And throughout the country, they find significant racial disparities in low-level arrests, with lots of Black people getting prosecuted for low-level crimes, resulting in many lives damaged without necessarily improving public safety.  “We’re getting plenty of policing, but it might not always be the type of policing that keeps people safe,” Williams says regarding these findings. And that suggests one way we could reform police departments: get them to use less manpower to arrest people for petty crimes and use more manpower to fight and solve serious crimes.

So if hiring more police is not the best way to reduce the upward trajectory of crime in the country, what is? The answer lies in strategy and not just flooding the streets (or sidewalks) with more police. And each city has its own unique problems. 

Because the causes of crime vary from place to place, it can be extraordinarily difficult to disentangle the benefits of hiring more officers in any one city.

“Does policing the hot spot have the same effect depending on what they do — stopping everyone, targeting high-risk offenders, or just standing on a street corner with your arms folded looking mean?” asked Jeffrey A. Fagan, an expert on policing at Columbia Law School, speaking of the practice of flooding high-crime areas with officers. The answer matters, he said, because “everybody agrees you get into fewer problems with the public if you minimize the police footprint.”

And then the politics. It always comes back to politics. 

Even crime statistics themselves have limitations — they are collected by the police, and the police decide what counts as a crime, said Tamara K. Nopper, a sociologist at Rhode Island College and the editor of “We Do This ’Til We Free Us,” a book on abolitionist organizing by Mariame Kaba.

“In the end, crime data is always a tool of police propaganda,” Dr. Nopper said. “If crime is low, the police are doing their jobs. If crime is high, we need to give more money to the police. The police always win.”  Perhaps because crime rates are so hard to explain, they are easy to exploit. The spike in gun violence has not only prompted calls to expand police departments, it has given the police an opening to blame crime on policies they do not like, often with little evidence.

Perhaps if politics were taken out of the equation there would be more trust and enough police. But the bigger picture is putting the money where the people are: social services for those that need help. 

In a recent survey of criminal justice experts, about two-thirds agreed that increasing police budgets would improve public safety. But many more of them — 85 percent — said that increasing spending on housing, health and education would do so.

In the longer term, Medicaid expansion, access to drug treatment and mental health care, and even a guaranteed basic income have also been found to reduce crime — perhaps with fewer downsides than policing.  “I think when one is talking about what’s an alternative to just adding police, well, putting some serious investment into the kind of program for at-risk youth that really gives them a concrete possibility for a real job,” said Elliott Currie, a criminologist at the University of California, Irvine. “That’s where you really get the bang for the buck.”

For all the good cops who get a bad rap because of the not so good cops I will end this article with a feel good video. And the hope all parties can come together for public health and safety.

Author: Sherri Margolin (Dark Matters)

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