The Case for Place in Twenty-First Century Policing

Tradition Versus Today’s Reality

In my 30 years in law enforcement and the subsequent 12 years working with law enforcement agencies around the world, I have become familiar with a number of different modern policing concepts taking root in agencies big and small. These include community policing, problem-oriented policing, predictive policing, and evidenced-based policing. More recently, I have been intrigued by the concepts of place-based policing and the writings of Dr. David Weisburd of George Mason University.

One commonality that exists in all these policing approaches is geography—the simple fact that crimes, criminals, victims, and most of what law enforcement has to deal with have a location: a specific address, building, street corner, block, or similar microgeography. The research of Dr. Weisburd and others has demonstrated that a very small number of specific locations in studied communities generate a significantly disproportionate number of police calls. While criminals are frequently difficult to target due to their mobility, crime hot spots tend to be stable over long periods of time, providing a better opportunity for the focus of police operations.

Today’s technology coupled with solid analytics has given law enforcement a much greater opportunity to understand the nature of crime in our communities. This data-driven approach employs police databases with geographic information systems (GIS) and better analytic tools to provide police managers with a detailed picture of crime in their communities.

More than just connecting the dots, Weisburd’s studies have demonstrated that we have the ability to focus on specific crime hot spots to direct our policing efforts rather than focusing on the larger, traditional policing geographies such as beats, precincts, and areas. His studies have demonstrated that in an era of diminishing financial and personnel resources, this place-based approach provides an opportunity to put the right people in the right place at the right time rather than patrolling a larger geography in the hope of preventing crime or apprehending a criminal in the process of committing a crime.

Are traditional police beats obsolete?

Lew Nelson

About Lew Nelson

Lew Nelson has served as the global law enforcement solutions manager for Esri since May 1998 after retiring as chief of police with 30 years of law enforcement service. He has worked with GIS in the law enforcement field for over 20 years.
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  1. Tom Casady says:

    The yearning of man for a plot of land is a constant in the human experience. History revolves around the struggle for control of polygons. Beats date back to the beginning of municipal policing. The evidence of geographic responsibility within a polygonal boundary begins even earlier. The Reeve of the Shire became the Shire-Reeve: the sheriff.

    The application of GIS technology to police data is unlikely to change the centuries-old division of police jurisdictions into smaller units of geography. Wiesburd’s research comes as no surprise to any municipal police officer. Those officers, if assigned for any length of time to the same beat, can reel off the problem addresses and describe the presenting problems.

    If police officers were routinely moved around in response to changing hot spots, their detailed understanding of the local scene would be diminished. Who’s the landlord at that problem building? Where are the graffiti artists supposed to be going to school? Why are the thefts occurring at certain parking lots and not at others? These are questions that a beat officer should ponder. The beat is also a unit of accountability: without the district or the beat, who is responsible? It is within the framework of districts and beats that place-based policing becomes a strategy for focusing police efforts.

    Geographic information system technology helps the police more quickly identify problem addresses, hot block faces, and other emerging areas threatened by crime. It is still the beat cop, though, with intimate knowledge of the denizens thereof, who is in the best position to intervene. If the officer on the street is merely chasing the amoeba around the map with no long-term commitment to the patch, the kind of personal ownership and intimate knowledge that empowers good policing will be lost.

  2. Joe Carragher says:

    I don’t think it’s a question of if our information-based approach to policing will end the relevance of traditional police beats—it already has. The fact that police forces and other law enforcement agencies continue to cling to these out-dated, often spatially irrelevant and frequently arbitrarily delineated pseudoboundaries is indeed simply a throwback to tradition.

    In the past, the delineation of beat boundaries rarely involved any consideration of the realities of policing on the ground and what inputs there are to the causes of crime. Often these days, the whole concept of police beats as being anything more than a basic unit of reference for police activity is a fantasy. Certainly, beats can be a useful reference tool for the organization and deployment of resources, but in terms of their current relevance to addressing crime within our communities, they have had their day.

    To be proactive in our approach to dealing with crime, we must utilize our information resources and those of our partner agencies (health authorities, local government, central government, social services, etc.), to generate a more complete, current, and accurate representation of crime and its causes. Experience tells us that such a complete picture is unlikely to align with any of the administrative boundaries that are currently in use by civic authorities, so we must engage with our community partners and start working collectively to develop reference boundaries that consider multiple inputs—crime, economics, education, health care, housing, ethnicity, and many more. By developing a common frame of reference and using the power of GIS to combine and analyze our information, we can bring the full might of all our civic agencies to bear on a particular problem area, which will help us develop a more considered approached to “beat’-ing” and beating crime.

  3. Corey C. Denninger says:

    Mr. Nelson makes a great point when citing Dr. Weisburd stating, “…focus on specific crime hot spots to direct our policing efforts rather than focusing on the larger, traditional policing geographies such as beats, precincts, and areas.” I agree. The only issue I see with this approach is our own citizens accusing the police force of wrongfully profiling, being ‘un-pc’, and potentially creating further anamosity (and then more crime) by focusing on ‘their’ communities. Keep up the good work and thank you to all those in uniform who serve bravely.

  4. Elizabeth Groff says:

    In the interests of full disclosure, I am a geographer by training and have worked closely with David Weisburd on a recently completed longitudinal study of street block characteristics and crime. I also was part of a team that found that a recent foot patrol initiative in Philadelphia reduced crime by 22 percent (Ratcliffe, Taniguichi, Groff, and Wood 2010). Thus, I am biased toward the importance of place in understanding crime. That said, on to the question of whether traditional police beats will ultimately become obsolete.

    In this response, I am assuming traditional police beats are ones that act as geographic containers for the allocation of patrol and that the main patrol strategy employed in such beats is random patrol within beat boundaries. In addition, I am assuming that the boundaries of traditional beats are drawn to even out the workload related to crime and calls for service rather than to prevent crime. I am also assuming that there will be an increasing movement toward evidence-based and intelligence-led policing among law enforcement agencies. Given those assumptions, I feel traditional beats are very likely to evolve in response to new information rather than disappear completely.

    There are reasons to keep a beat structure as a framework for allocating police officers. Most importantly, such a structure would offer officers the opportunity to become very knowledgeable about particular areas. This local knowledge is essential to effective place-based policing. Additionally, having beats would accommodate the current hierarchical command structure in law enforcement agencies and thus avoid tackling more than one major change at a time.

    As Lew stated, research showing the effectiveness of place-based, focused efforts in reducing crime provides a clear mandate for change. But the implementation of the mandate requires rethinking the exact form of this new framework for allocating resources.

  5. Beats are a vestige of policing, and they served to aid a specific management role of assignment and allocation (as Dr. Groff and Chief Casady noted). These are functions that shouldn’t be forgotten, and raster-based hotspot maps aren’t immediately accessible for these functions. It translates well in command to say, “Spend proactive time in Beat 2.” It’s easy to sum crime incidents and report change statistics in polygons. Raster-based hotspot maps are difficult because they’re qualitative in nature. The raster data model doesn’t allow for underlying incident data to be summed, mined or even named. Analysts spend a lot of time doing the summing and data-mining by hand based on the raster hotspot.

    That’s why we need to evolve towards a geoprocessing framework that incorporates the best of both worlds. A Modelbuilder tool that polygonizes kernel density hotspots allows for some black-and-white quantitative truths to emerge from the hotspots, instead of an artful ‘blobology’. A quantitative hotspot process allows for these hotspots to be concretely referred to, and these polygons can be used to assign presence. As analysts have more access to AVL data, these polygonized hotspots are what should be used to evaluate proactive presence.

  6. Julie Wartell says:

    I couldn’t agree more with the importance of place, analyzing call and other crime-related data, etc. in supporting police resource allocation. With that said, San Diego PD (one of the forerunners of problem-oriented policing and using GIS in decision-making) attempted to do away with traditional police beats in the mid-1990s. They (“we” at the time) went to a neighborhood approach in designing beats and then grouped beats together in “service areas”. Instead of the officers being assigned to beats for call response, they were assigned to these larger areas and told to focus on problem locations/areas (this was before the modern “hot spot” rage) and answer calls closest to them when they came out over the air. All sounds good, right? What happened was that some of the go-getter cops were running around from call to problem to call and others were sitting in their fave parking lot and doing as little as possible. So the concepts have been there for a long time, the technology we all know exists to implement “ideal” situations, but unfortunately most agencies are still very traditional (aka not like Lincoln NE) in their practice. The true challenge is finding law enforcement leaders who are willing to use research combined with technology AND hold their folks accountable to implementing these ideas.

    Sorry for the long response. :)

  7. Roy Stone says:

    Are traditional police beats obsolete? To that question, I answer a resounding “Yes.” Given the societal dynamics in today’s world, I don’t think there’s much that can be called “traditional” with respect to a police beat, especially when the boundary of a beat (or any other geographic designated area) is viewed, at best, as semi-permeable. I do believe that police beats should exist, for the structure and management benefits they provide and that their boundaries be viewed as permeable or even fluid. On the concurrent theme of “hot spots”, I suggest terms such as “hot spots” and “watering holes” be used sparingly and with caution. To me, “hot spots” will eventually cool. Likewise, “watering holes” will dry up. When things are rough, drug users know where they can get their fix at 2AM on Christmas Day. I label those kinds of locations as “Drinking Fountains” because they represent infrastructure. They are not temporary or transitory like “hot spots” or “watering holes.” They are permanent fixtures on the landscape, “homing beacons”, so to speak. When coupled with other policing methods, I believe eliminating “homing beacons” will go a long way in reducing crime.

  8. Jim Bueermann says:

    Lew Nelson poses a most timely question when he asks if today’s increasingly information-based approaches to policing ultimately make traditional police beats obsolete. He has, in fact, described the current environment of the police department in Redlands, California, which is reeling from the recession-driven reduction of 25 % of its street officers.

    The evolution of information system technologies and the advance of research into what works in policing are unprecedented and hold great promise for creating safer communities. They portend well for departments (like the Redlands Police Department) that find themselves subject to the new norm of reduced staffing and the community and political expectations that are increasingly common in these recessionary times. However, organizational culture, tradition, and local expectations frequently frame policing responses in spite of technological advances and scientific evidence. This is today’s reality of policing.

    A central tenet of community policing is the designation of specific geographic areas as long-term assignments for police officers, who are charged with developing extensive knowledge of the neighborhoods in which they work. Problem identification and community collaboration framed around solutions to those problems are hallmarks of this approach. For many advocates of community policing, the suggestion that departments abandon a long-term geographic orientation approach and instead focus on crime hot spots, which can actually move across space and time, may be nothing short of heresy. In addition, communities that utilize geographically defined special tax districts to fund officers will find serious political and community opposition to diverting officers from those areas to hot spots even though there is little or no crime there!

    So, the notion proposed originally should be modified to include the fusing of community policing—and all that implies about community knowledge and partnerships—with the scientific/information approach of hot spots and micro places. For instance, can departments work hot spots that are within established beats? Can teams of community-focused officers address problem street segments within their assigned districts?

    Thoughtful discussion can yield strategies that employ top-tier research, sophisticated information analysis, and a focus on places that include the tenets of community policing. In this way, crime will be reduced, while the relationships that the police have with the communities they serve will be enhanced.

  9. Ronald Rasmussen says:

    One of the benefits of police beats is that they establish an infrastructure for policing that extends beyond geography. When properly designed, beats define the intended span of control of work for the police officer on a day to day basis (beat integrity) and facilitate the existence of a sophisticated network system which more accurately reflects the application of policing at the street level. This infrastructure optimizes the penetration of the network system in to the community and facilitates the accountability between the department and the community as well as within the department.

    As with any sort of infrastructure, the design and its execution is the critical piece of the puzzle. If beats are simply regarded as a fence or crime bucket then their ability to support the agencies goals and objective will be limited and may actually be thwarted if the design is poor enough. On the other hand, if beat design includes balanced workload, beat integrity, proactive time, and the place based policing ideas espoused by Dr. Weisburd, then we begin to achieve an integrated system (in the likeness of what Chief Bueerman envisions) that truly enhances our ability to police.

    As Julie Wartell mentioned, there have been experiments where agencies have tried to eliminate police beats from the organization. These arrangements frequently result in chaotic and entropic service delivery with little ability to achieve, let alone measure or assess, success in achieving the goals or objectives of the organization.

    Recent revelations about place and crime don’t eliminate the need for beats. Neither do any of the other policing doctrines including community policing and intelligence led policing. Rather, they all serve to sharpen our understanding of how to design beats in such a way that they create the appropriate infrastructure to better support the delivery of police service (think networks), to be able to measure our success in implementing our doctrine choices, and allow us to hold ourselves and our communities accountable for policing in our jurisdictions.

  10. Kurt Smith says:

    It seems that police beats remain relevant only if one of two conditions exist: either beats are used for patrol or investigations assignment or they reflect the community geography of neighborhoods or some other social context. GIS has reduced the importance of beats for deployment, challenging tradition while simultaneously showing us that our community geographies—a proxy to traditional beats—are essential to the provision of transparent and accountable services.

    Information-based strategies that reduce the relevance of administrative beat boundaries close the gap between how we police and why we police.

    Beats are evolving away from being a police-defined geography of our cities and communities and toward being areas of aggregation that are meaningful to the people themselves. We may still call them “beats” for a while longer, but we really mean something entirely different. All at once, this will ease many points of resistance to community policing in traditional organizations while it allows flexibility in deployments that empower information and evidence-based strategies. The key will be visionary police leaders of all ranks who understand the enabling role of geospatial technology.

    This evolution won’t just happen, though; it must be made to happen. GIS long ago moved beyond being the means to a paper-map end. Geospatial data and capabilities aren’t just in dispatch and records systems anymore; they are streaming in from in-car and community video technology, fixed and mobile license plate readers, automated vehicle/people locator systems, GPS offender monitoring, and other sources. The how/why relationship is based on geography, and every opportunity to be geoinformed must be fully realized. Dr. Weisburd tells us to look beyond the hots pots and engage the micro places that define them.

    Years from now, the beat will be the dynamic proximity of a patrol officer to the people and places that need or demand service.

  11. James Kobolt says:

    This appears to be a question that has no easy answer. As an old professor of mine once said, “it all depends.” Admittedly, it is tempting to look at GIS hot spots, crime migration analysis, and crime forecasting to determine real-time deployment of resources. But the follow-up question should probably be “is crime reduction the only function of the beat?” If the answer is “yes,” then perhaps chasing crime around the map is the way to go. If the answer is “no,” then perhaps there is still a place in law enforcement for beats or geographic areas of accountability.

    Chief Casady did a great job previously of summarizing the other benefits of beats, like officer knowledge of problems, who is who in specific locations, and accountability. He also notes that the officer knowledge of their area is an important component to the information derived from sophisticated analysis.

    This is a discussion we have been having locally for a couple of years and there is no easy answer to it. However, we see in community meetings citizens often want to hear from the officer/deputy who work their area. For some reason that officer/deputy’s observation and reassurance seems to carry more weight (and perhaps more empowerment) than any piece of data that can be projected on the screen. This phenomenon reminds me of the Perspective on Policing article “Crime and Policing” by Moore, Trojanowicz and Kelling. A central point of the article was the disconnect between police and citizen perceptions of “serious crime.” Police tended to think of serious crime as “violent, significant loss to victims and predatory strangers.” Citizens tended to think of serious crime as “an offense that happened to them.” This discovery, coupled with other research findings such as Wilson and Kelling’s “Broken Windows,” began to shape the position that police needed to take care of the little things. It becomes an increasingly complex task to identify and fix the ongoing little things when an officer is constantly moving in pursuit of the dot (or raster). This seems to suggest officer knowledge at the beat level and competent analysis are both important tools in crime detection/reduction and to citizens.

    Given these issues, ultimately this is a decision the chief or sheriff must make, and their citizens will live with the affects.