What we have learned from Philadelphia foot patrols

With the recent publication of our comparison of foot patrol versus car patrol, it ‘s worth a quick review of all that we learned from the Philadelphia Foot Patrol Experiment. Especially as the paper Liz Groff took the lead on is available for free from the publishers until the end of May.

The original foot patrol experiment paper described our randomized controlled field experiment which saw the Philadelphia Police Department place 240 officers on 60 violent crime hotspots (randomly selected from a list of 120) for the long hot summer of 2009. And it was hot walking the streets of Philadelphia in a ballistic vest – we all remember the fieldwork and empathizing with the officers who did it all summer!

At the end of the experiment, 90 violent crimes had been prevented, resulting in a net reduction of 53 violent offenses after some displacement. This was a 23 percent reduction in violent crime as a result of foot patrol in carefully-targeted areas – a unique finding for policing.

How was this achieved? We found that pedestrian stops increased by 64 percent in the foot patrol areas, probably increasing the likelihood that offenders would be stopped, and subsequently reducing their enthusiasm for carrying a firearm. We learned some other things that summer:

  1. There was no community backlash within the foot patrol areas. To the contrary, members of the local community were really upset when their foot patrol officers were eventually removed, and they let the PPD know about it in no uncertain terms.
  2. The image of foot patrol as a punishment posting changed to a degree within the PPD. Good commanders became convinced that foot patrol was a practical tactic in high crime areas, and some patrols remained in place after the experiment.
  3. The fool patrol officers got a real feel for their foot patrol areas, developing community and criminal intelligence in the months they spent on foot.
  4. The foot patrol officers engaged in more pedestrian stops than their vehicle-bound colleagues, and they also dealt with many more disorder incidents – an activity that is always an issue in the summer in Philadelphia. They dealt with fewer serious crime incidents, yet were undoubtedly responsible for the decline in violent crime.
  5. Importantly, the foot patrol officers engaged is a different type of police work than their colleagues in cars. Less response-driven, they engaged in more order maintenance and community-related activities. They did not replace the activities of the cars, but rather work in a complementary fashion, being co-producers of community safety with their colleagues. Even if they sometimes wandered a little.

Unfortunately, we also learned – in a subsequent Criminology article headed up by two enterprising graduate students, Evan Sorg and Cory Haberman – that the gains achieved during the foot patrol experiment did not last. The effects dissipated as soon as the foot patrol officers were removed, and in fact some effects were starting to wear off as the foot patrol experiment continued into the late summer.

My colleague Jen Wood took the lead on the qualitative component so important to understanding the nuance of the foot patrol experiment. We learned that officers negotiated order based on geography, people and space, and varied their strategies and tactics based on their knowledge of the people and the environment.

The experiment was generously awarded with a research award from the IACP and from the American Society of Criminology’s Division of Experimental Criminology, but more importantly it helped people recognize the Philadelphia Police Department as an innovative department willing to try new things, take risks, and learn. And while it involved a lot of researchers, they nearly all volunteered their time on top of their normal duties. Temple University and the College of Liberal Arts generously helped out with some fieldwork costs, indicative of their desire and ongoing commitment to moving the city forward; But the experiment – which learned so much – did not cost the city taxpayers a single cent.