Police: Are We ‘Beating’ Ourselves Out of Efficiency?

Calls for Service

If we were to take a close look at efficiency in police departments, an area that could be of concern would be the response times to calls for service in the community. Not necessarily the emergency priority calls; we know that those are usually (hopefully) expedited, but the non emergency service calls. These are important because in most departments, they make up the largest share of the call volume and therefore, impact a greater number of citizens. It goes without saying these calls will generate more disatisfaction if the citizen has to wait very long.

There are many variables that come into play with regard to how soon the police will arrive after someone calls dispatch; but today I will focus on the system that policing has relied on since policing began; the beat system.

The Beat System

The beat system was established years ago, primarily based on an effort to provide a police presence and efficient response times where mobility was limited in defined geographical areas. Imagine officers on traditional walking beats or maybe horses. It worked and despite any limitations that existed, it worked well.

Beats and sub-beats are geographically created based on call volume and census data, and officers on a shift or watch are divided up to fill the beats. Add cars, then radio and data communications to the mix and the beat system remains the foundation, with easier mobility.

Some positives remain that at least in theory and hope, officers learn the people and nuances of their assigned beat and the citizens learn the officers. The removal of the officer from the sidewalk to the car challenges the community relations wish, but we continue on hopefully.

And, for the most part this still works, at least until the call volume increases ahead of the number of personnel and challenges the concept entirely. Beat cars are drug away from their boundaries throughout a shift and calls go on hold.

What do we do when this happens? Maybe not much, because “we’ve always done it this way.”

The Choke Hold

If the system is truly working, then do not fix it. But be careful about what ‘working’ means. I know that in LE we are all about goals and objectives, and this is critical for this topic. The confusion I see is identifying what the goal or mission is. Is the goal to provide services to the community as quickly as possible, or is it to support and maintain the beat system? When the heat is on, these are two very different goals with very different outcomes.

Subordinating everything to maintain the beat system can create a constraint, or choke hold, on providing services. In the Theory of Constraints (ToC), this is an important element in improving performance.

If the idea of success is that beat officers are handling every call in their beat, even if it means holding calls, then a chokehold is in play, and there is no longer a prioritization of  customer service.

The time that a call is held is never recovered, ever. By holding the call to the beat, or allowing the officer to request a call be held for them, we have now guaranteed that someone in the community will have a delayed response of an unpredictable amount of time. Whereas, had the call remained open for dispatching, the probability is much higher that the response time will be improved.

By holding the call to the beat, or allowing the officer to request a call be held for them, we have now guaranteed that someone in the community will have a delayed response of an unpredictable amount of time.


An analogy from the customer viewpoint that I like to use is pizza delivery.

Imagine that you have a group of kids over to celebrate you 10 year-old’s birthday. You have done your headcount and the quick math and you call a pizza place about a mile away and order a few pies. You’re told it will be about 45 minutes, and that works for you. You’re pretty sure that the pizzas will be made and sent by the next available driver. That is a reasonable assumption.

But what if the pizza shop does something a little different? Maybe there are 4 drivers working. Each driver is assigned an area to deliver pizzas, and they may not deliver to other areas.

It’s your bad luck, but Donnie, the driver for your area, seems to be getting more orders in his area than the other three drivers, and he is getting behind more as time goes by. Your pizza is made and it is in line, but Donnie is buried and traffic is back up in the area as well. Donnie has had trouble finding  a couple of addresses, two customers were in the mood to talk, Donnie stopped for gas, etc…

Everyone at the pizza shop sees the backup start and it just gets worse. But because ‘we’ve always done it this way’, no one asks the other drivers to jump in and help. Even when another driver offers to take a few calls for Donnie, he’s a go-getter and politely refuses the help. This is his area and he has it under control.

45 minutes have long passed, you have no pizza and a handful of bored, hungry kids.

When does this get unreasonable or get to the point that you are angry?

Welcome to the world of the non-priority call citizen.

long queue of people, back view

The beat system, is essentially lining people up, at the whim and speed of the beat they are associated with.

The Fix

Before I go on, I will recognize that service overloads are not the only variable to be considered. Geography is important, the sheer size of areas that might make it counter-productive to traverse great distances, or barriers like railways that would separate resources have to be taken into consideration.

That said, how can this be approached?

Restructuring Beat Boundaries

Possibly, but this can be an endless ritual, based on new census counts or demographic changes in the jurisdiction, not to mention the technical challenges and impacts on data recorded before the changes. In the end, this would be a lot of work, and the issue would stay the same. Instead of restructuring beats, reassess how you are staffing them. Always change the easiest variable.

 Increase Staffing

This is the dream fix, and it is a dream because we know it is the most difficult to obtain. And unfortunately, if the beat system remains the norm, it would not have much impact on improving service times.

Go ahead, blur those beat lines and open your culture

My favorite right here. Keep the beat boundaries for reporting data and identifying areas, but open and broaden the assignment areas. Let dispatch send units as soon available (using GPS to enhance when possible if it is available), and get those calls out! Use problem solving and community policing strategies to focus on areas of concern; maybe even ask available officers to migrate back to those areas while waiting in the next call. We should be more dynamic than static.

How we deploy and how we measure activity in geographic areas are two very different things.

Why assign two or three cars to a beat that has significantly low activity, only to see them drawn away over and over again to a more active area?

Empower your officers to work in the larger areas on the problem areas and make sure they move away from the ‘burden of the beat’. The beat culture is what drives them to stack the world on their shoulders; well-intended, but very ineffective.


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This entry was posted in Operations, Organizational Behavior, Process of Ongoing Improvement (POOGI), Productivity, Strategy and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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