On the Beat: What Does Good Policing Look Like to the Street Cop?

Honors student-researchers: Andrew Beverage, Joshua Fiveson, Alex Helmprecht, Terri Hines, William Johnson, Karen Leh, Joseph Montano, Ronald Novak, Helena Pocanic, Katharine Shrum, Christopher Thompson, Sarah Thornton

Principal Investigator: Assistant Professor James J. Willis 

The Henry Louis Gates case generated lots of controversy and little consensus.  This was due in no small measure to the lack of an empirical foundation for judging whether the officer’s decision to make an arrest was good or bad policing.  The purpose of this research project, conducted by undergraduate students enrolled in the ADJ Honors Seminar (2009-10), was to systematically identify criteria for assessing the quality of police work by any department’s largest resources, its patrol officers.  In addition to deepening understanding on this topic, this research provides a preliminary basis for other departments to measure how well their patrol officers are performing rather than just how hard they are working.  Researchers and police administrators have tended to address the question of police performance by analyzing the quantity of police work delivered (arrests, citations, etc.), but this tells us very little about the quality of that work.  Was a decision the best decision?   The lack of empirical research addressing how we might go about measuring good police work is a significant oversight.  Members of the public care very much about how they are treated in their encounters with the police, and the police themselves put a great deal of value on “knowledgeable, skillful, and judicious decision making.”

Using 12 in-depth interviews with patrol officers in the Alexandria Police Department and 23 ridealongs, a research team of one faculty member and 12 undergraduate students addressed the issue of “What does good policing look like to the street cop?”  Our findings suggested that:

  • There is considerable consensus among patrol officers about what situations could be used to judge the quality of an officer’s performance (traffic stops and domestic disputes) and the kind of skills that constitute good police work (communication and attending to public/officer safety)
  • Contrary to conventional wisdom, patrol officers are able to rank the most important goals to accomplish when responding to a particular call
  • Skillful police work includes a well developed capacity to communicate, extensive knowledge of the beat and the law, and a willingness to go “beyond the call”
  • There is a significant discrepancy between how patrol officers evaluate their own work and the criteria they think their supervisors use to judge patrol officer performance
  • Officers placed much greater value on factors associated with the craft of policing (“resources of knowledge, skill, and judgment,” according to Egon Bittner) – factors not easily captured by traditional measures


                              (Click poster for full pdf view)

Based on these findings we suggested three policy recommendations:

  1. Change monthly and annual evaluations to draw more attention to complexity of patrol work and develop measures for addressing degrees of skill
  2. Reform training to include more realistic decision-making scenarios and assign police officers who are recognized among their peers as particularly adept at being highly skilled at police work to teach
  3. Provide additional incentives for rewarding good patrol work (higher salary, special ranks, etc.)

A poster summarizing this research was presented at GMU’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences Undergraduate Research Symposium and honors students presented their findings at the Administration of Justice Department’s annual awards ceremony.

Print Friendly and PDF