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Ecology and Police Management: Increasing Efficiency in Patrol Operations

By Noor Z. Razzaq

While traditional research into police social science has focused primarily on the immediate effects of police-citizen encounters, circumstances surrounding those encounters, and the effects of internal and external organizational factors on police action, Klinger’s (1997) theory on police discretion focuses on “linking police activity to the ecological context in which it occurs” (p. 278). This nontraditional approach opens the door to a myriad of new possibilities regarding management practices of police personnel and patrol operations. This article will explore some of these possibilities by pragmatically applying the principles of Klinger’s theory to police management and operational strategy.

Specifically, this article will discuss division of police labor into patrol districts, the subsequent development of idiosyncratic work group rules (unofficially developed localized informal rules) by police officers within those patrol districts, factors which shape district-specific work group rules regarding the use of police discretion, and the effects of the aforementioned on police-citizen relations. This article will also discuss implications of these effects and explore considerations for police managers in regards to effective jurisdictional division and allocation of police personnel and resources in order to align work-group rules with citizen norms. By doing so, police managers can facilitate higher quality police service and enhanced police-citizen relations through a more even distribution of police services.

Span-of-Control: The Foundation of Police Work Groups

Span-of-control is a consistent issue for police administrations to contend with regardless of an agency’s degree of organizational centralization. Putting this into ecological context, Klinger first begins by pragmatically describing span-of-control in universal terms of division of labor in order to effectively manage patrol areas. With the exception of the smallest and least populated of municipalities, the size inherent to most jurisdictions requires geographical division into more manageable patrol districts (Klinger, 1997).

Specifically, jurisdictions are divided based on size and population into beats, precincts, and/or even boroughs in larger jurisdictions (e.g., New York City) and each of these geographical units can be broken down further into smaller units of police coverage. The purpose of this division of labor is to enhance span-of-control normally weakened by increased jurisdictional size. For the purpose of this article, the term “district” will be used to describe any of the aforementioned forms of jurisdictional division of labor. Klinger (1997) suggests that each patrol district forms an ecological ‘community’ due to the manner by which officers’ carry out their duties within the context of and subsequent to jurisdictional division. More specifically, Klinger (1997) defines ecological ‘communities’ from the police perspective as being “collections of beats that form small jurisdictions and districts of large ones” (p. 282) which have distinct locally defined and accepted medians of criminal activity as defined by their officers and as applied to both specific crimes and crime in general. This results in a high degree of relative social, political, and criminogenic isolation between patrol districts and is directly correlated with officer discretion as applied to everything from handling calls for service to decisions to enact selective enforcement (Goldstein, 1977).

Proper District Zoning to Enhance Police-Citizen Relations

Factors such as increased crime in a given district may affect officer discretion due to the increased or decreased “accepted” median or “norm” of criminal activity as perceived by police. Bittner (1967), for example, asserts officers working on skid row or in the ghetto are often more likely to take on containment (confining criminal activity to a given geographic area) and order maintenance roles than enforcement roles. In fact, Goldstein (1960) found police in one ghetto neighborhood took informal action or no action in 38 out of 43 felony-level assaults which occurred during the one-month study period (as cited in Klinger, 1997).

Regardless of what is considered to be the localized “norm”, it is criminal activity above that “norm” that is given additional attention (e.g., enforcement and arrest) by the police. In this light, Klinger’s police-oriented definition of “communities” and “districts” highlights the ‘disconnect’ between citizen and police paradigms of what constitutes each. From the officer’s perspective, districts make up “communities” more so than citizens’ neighborhoods do. The varying medians of “acceptable” criminal activity between police districts which have been impractically demarcated (e.g., splitting “neighborhoods” as defined or understood by the public) can ultimately diminish police-citizen relations as the criminogenic and police attitudinal norms will vary in neighborhoods split between two police districts resulting in the uneven distribution of police services within that neighborhood.

To mitigate this, police managers at the appropriate level should consider redistricting by realigning demarcation lines separating patrol districts to more accurately align with and/or contain neighborhood boundaries within district boundaries. This will help to enhance or at least prevent the unnecessary degradation of police-community relations by mitigating instances of neighborhood-level inconsistency in distribution of police services.

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