Normally you can find me ranting against the environmental and public health ills of over-reliance on cars, but Tyler Cowen offers this quote from Peter Moskos’ Cop in the Hood which reminds us that it’s also had a devastating impact on police work:
Car patrol eliminated the neighborhood police officer. Police were pulled off neighborhood beats to fill cars. But motorized patrol — the cornerstone of urban policing — has no effect on crime rates, victimization, or public satisfaction. Lawrence Sherman was an early critic of telephone dispatch and motorized patrol, noted, “The rise of telephone dispatch transformed both the method and purpose of patrol. Instead of watching to prevent crime, motorized police patrol became a process of merely waiting to respond to crime.”
The big rise in crime rates over the course of the 1960s and 70s rapidly became more grist for the mill of America’s ideological battles, but a lot of what we can do to reduce crime seems to involve basically un-ideological management tweaks. Unfortunately, cities have been very slow to respond to research with actual shifts in policy. But there’s tons of evidence to suggest that cops doing patrol work need to spend less time responding to calls and much less time in their cars. Beyond the factors noted above, when you’re driving a car you need to be watching the road or you’re cause an accident. But to do effect patrol you need to be watching what’s happening in the neighborhood, not just breezing past it.