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Park and Walk, an Old Strategy Revisited
Written by Jody Kasper
Do more with less. That seems to be the mantra of police administrators doing their best to maintain a high quality of service and public safety with departments that are running on fumes. Although there may be a small boost in federal funding for police departments with the recent federal stimulus package, many departments are currently struggling to keep their heads above water.
It is a prime time to evaluate the effectiveness of existing patrol strategies and to implement programs that will be the most advantageous to each individual agency. One such method, the “park and walk” program, is a strategy that can be easily implemented and has many advantages. Before delving into the concept and benefits of park and walk programs, a brief look at the changes in policing over the past few decades will be helpful.
The 1980s marked the beginning of the community policing era. The importance of developing and maintaining community partnerships, early attention to quality of life issues, and problem solving with community members and civic organizations are the building blocks of the community policing concept. Advocates believe that community partnerships are a critical piece of a successful police organization.
The goals of agencies that attempted to adopt the community policing philosophy were to reduce crime, reduce fear of crime and to empower citizens to work with their community service officers to best address their concerns. It is a decentralized policing concept that gives decision-making power to the street-level officer and that takes some creativity and commitment on behalf of the police and community members to solve problems using new strategies.
At the height of the community policing era, law enforcement agencies across the nation began to experience an infusion of federal funding that allowed police administrators the ability to expand their agencies by increasing the number of police officers out on the street. The majority of this money came from the COPS Program, and it promised funding for 100,000 more officers on the streets countrywide.
Police administrators used much of that funding to create new or augment existing community service programs. Community service officers were often removed from traditional patrol duties and instead worked with community members in targeted sections of the city or town to address specific concerns. Other positions that may fall under the umbrella of community services, such as DARE officers and school resource officers, were also added. Some agencies were able to add additional foot patrol or bike officers to their regular patrol force.
Although many agencies attempted to implement community policing initiatives, few were successful in making a complete transition to this policing style. The main problem for many agencies was their failure to adopt community policing strategies agency-wide. Instead, departments created separate units that were titled “Community Services” and separate officers that were titled “community service officers.” In many agencies, there was a line drawn in the sand that clearly divided street patrol officers from community service officers.
Unfortunately, over the past several years, less and less federal and state funding has been available to public safety agencies. Chiefs nationwide have been forced to make difficult decisions regarding staff deployment and expenditures. This has resulted in cuts to many policing programs, including many community service officers, DARE officers and school resource officers.
The loss of these programs has been through reassignment of personnel and failure to fill vacant positions. This leaves police agencies in an interesting position. The development of specialized units designed to have high contact with community members, to a certain extent, created a division between “community police officers” and “patrol officers.”
Many patrol officers stuck to traditional, reactive policing, while community service officers used proactive strategies to problem solve. Now, with the loss of these community service officers, patrol officers need to, once again, fulfill this dual role by engaging in traditional patrol functions and by developing and maintaining strong ties within their communities.
Many veteran officers who have seen community service units come and go seem to have a solid understanding of the importance of getting out of their cruisers, chatting with community members and maintaining those relationships. Newer officers, on the other hand, tend to have less of an understanding of this method of policing and may place a heavy emphasis on reactive strategies that involve random vehicle patrol, motor vehicle law enforcement and arrests.
It is now up to police administrators to develop and implement methods that integrate the concept of community policing with today’s street-level officers so that existing community partnerships can be maintained and new ones can be developed.
The park and walk concept is fairly simple. Have patrol officers park their cruisers for a specified amount of time each shift. They then get out and walk through specific areas of their patrol zones. Target areas usually include high crime areas, business districts, parks, highly residential neighborhoods and in and around schools. These activities should be documented by officers as they complete their walkthroughs.
The park and walk program has been around for a long time, whether informally or formally. Many officers naturally partake in this style of policing without fulfilling a written policy or directive established by their agencies. They can be seen chatting with business employees, bystanders on the street and giving directions to lost visitors.
Other agencies have implemented more formal programs. These have a variety of names such as “Stop, Walk & Talk.” One of these is the “45-15 Program” where officers spend 45 minutes in their cruisers and 15 minutes out walking around each hour.
Whatever the name, all programs are based on the same general principle of getting officers out of their cars, being more accessible and directly engaging with community members and visitors. These programs have a number of specific advantages.
The first advantage, and one that is particularly notable in these economic times, is the savings in fuel and vehicle wear and tear. Parking a cruiser for two hours out of an eight-hour shift would result in a 25% savings in fuel use. This can equate to a substantial savings over a year.
A second advantage is the ability of officers to strengthen community relationships. Having officers who are more visible and more approachable can help to dissolve the “us versus them” attitude that can sometime grow between community members and police officers. Improved relationships can assist officers in a variety of ways.
Officers can develop informants and will have better access to information on suspects and those involved in criminal investigations. Strong community relationships can also assist in recruitment efforts as officers can more easily spread information about upcoming exams and employment requirements. Interested candidates might also be more comfortable approaching an officer and talking with him about employment opportunities and with questions about law enforcement in general.
Additionally, community support is critically important at a time when staff layoffs and funding is constantly at risk. When residents are called upon to vote on overrides or to make decisions about how money is spent, it is imperative that the police department has support from the community that it serves.
A third advantage is the ability of officers to become more familiar with the communities they work in. This includes having face-to-face contact with the people who live in the community and learning the physical layout of areas that are not accessible by cars.
Walking around targeted locations can be helpful for officers who did not grow up in or who do not currently live in the cities or towns for which they work. Learning the ins and outs of alleyways and backdoors can prove to be valuable information when officers become involved in foot pursuits and in general investigations where areas of access are known.
A fourth advantage is crime deterrence. Officers who are out walking the beat and walking through areas where police are not usually seen creates an omnipresence—citizens (and criminals) feel like the police may be anywhere at anytime. This can effectively deter potential criminal activity and may also contribute to a greater sense of safety and security.
A final and important advantage of park and walk programs is the improved health benefits for officers. As many officers know, the combination of heavy duty belts, ballistic vests and sitting in a cruiser all day is the perfect combination for back, neck and shoulder problems. This lifestyle can also contribute to obesity and poor overall health conditions.
Many health practitioners who address typical office workers recommend standing up from the desk and computer every 45 minutes to stretch and walk around a bit to keep the body moving. The concept is certainly true for police officers as well. Breaking up an eight-hour shift with a few 20- to 30-minute walks can do wonders to improve an individual’s health.
It should be noted that park and walk programs can be implemented in both urban and rural environments. From the smallest town to the largest city, officers can park their cruisers and get out and walk around through targeted areas. Whatever the target area, anytime officers get out of their cruisers and increase their visibility and accessibility, improved community relationships and partnerships are likely to result.
Businesses, parks, schools, residential streets, city or town property, malls and other shopping areas, hospitals and many other locations that are unique to a city or town are appropriate areas to target.
A special issue within the field of park and walk programs is the use of this style of patrol within and around schools. Many departments have been forced to reassign school resource officers back to the street. There is now a noticeable absence of police officers walking through the hallways of public schools. People may argue for or against a police presence inside a school, but with the apparent rise in school shootings and other serious violent incidents on school grounds, it is extremely important that officers are best prepared to respond to these critical incidents.
Many police agencies have responded to this threat by conducting active shooter trainings aimed at taking out armed gunmen inside schools. Police and school administrators have also maintained a routine practice of conducting drills that address school shootings, fires, bombs and other potential threats.
While all of these efforts are important, the first step in any school-based incident is the responding officer’s familiarity and knowledge of the interior and exterior of the building. Assigning officers to park and walk through a city or town’s schools is a great way to ensure that officers are familiar with the layout of school buildings. It is also a great strategy to develop and maintain strong ties with school administrators and teachers.
It should be noted that park and walk programs that do include schools must be an agreed upon practice between school and police administrators. Some school system personnel may not be comfortable having uniformed officers walk through their buildings. If this is the case, it may be best to limit walkthroughs to non-school hours. Or, members of the department can spend some time addressing the school committee, parent teacher association or concerned administrators to explain the goals of the program and its benefits.
When considering the implementation of a park and walk program in a community, some police administrators may be concerned about the reduction in vehicle patrol time that will result. This is a concern that can best be addressed by reviewing the results of the now famous Kansas City Preventative Patrol Experiment.
This study, conducted over a yearlong period between 1972 and 1973, was designed to determine if increases and decreases in random police vehicle patrol would affect the crime rate, people’s fear of crime or people’s satisfaction with the police. The city was divided into three different sections.
One section had a dramatic increase in police patrols, the second had no random patrols and police only responded when called, and the third section maintained the same level of random police patrols. After a year, crime data was analyzed, and surveys were given to residents to measure their fear of crime and their general perception of the police.
The results indicated that there was virtually no difference in actual or perceived crime throughout the different patrol regions and that people in all regions were equally satisfied with the police. Essentially, routine preventive patrol in marked cruisers, as is the normal practice in the majority of police departments today, had little to no value in preventing crime or making citizens feel safe. Consequently, the financial and personnel resources normally allocated to random patrol could safely be used more effectively elsewhere.
The park and walk program is a patrol method that has numerous advantages for both the officers who participate and for the community at large. It integrates many of the key concepts of community policing and effective patrol strategies. It is a clear, simple and cost-effective program that can be easily practiced by today’s street-level patrol officer.
In this time of economic uncertainty, doing everything possible to improve community relationships, reduce and prevent crime, improve officer health and reduce fuel and vehicle costs should be explored as possible strategies to accomplish the overall mission of public safety.
Jody Kasper is a 12-year veteran of policing and currently a sergeant with the Northampton, MA Police. Kasper is also an adjunct professor at Elms College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published in Law and Order, Jun 2009
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