A beat cop is a law enforcement officer who walks, rides, cycles, or drives in a specific neighborhood that becomes known as his or her “beat.” The officer routinely patrols in the same area, and as such he or she often becomes well known in the community and is well-positioned to prevent crime and respond quickly when things go awry. Ideally, neighborhood residents will feel comfortable approaching the beat cop to talk about local issues and concerns. They may also be more inclined to report problems when they feel like they have a personal connection with the department.
Modern police forces often refer to keeping a beat as “community policing,” as the focus is on local area happenings rather than larger, city-wide affairs. A beat cop is usually focused only on matters that happen within the confines of the specific neighborhood or neighborhoods at issue. In many respects, this cop becomes something of a local expert, familiar with patterns and activities that happen on a regular basis.
Differences in Rural and Urban Areas
The main goals of a beat cop tend to vary depending on the setting. In rural areas, the officer functions much as a watchman would have decades ago. Watchmen were public safety officials who patrolled specific neighborhoods at night, almost always on foot. Most rural and suburban beat cops drive today, but in some communities they may still walk, often taking time to greet residents and make themselves known to those who might be planning on mischief.
Mischief and crime prevention is often much more of a focus in urban areas. Beat cops in big cities often work only a couple of blocks at a time, keeping an eye out for crimes-in-progress and working to keep residents and business owners safe. Officers in these settings are often a lot less mobile, sometimes staking out views from specific buildings or vantage points. Their goals are the same as their suburban counterparts — that is, to intimately understand the local landscape — but the actual execution is often a bit different.
Role in Crime Prevention and Arrests
In both cases, officers are responsible for stopping crimes-in-progress. They are usually the first to respond to burglaries and home alarms, for instance; they will also stop drug deals and apprehend people suspected of criminal behavior. In most cases they will also take the lead in investigating homicides and thefts that happened within the confines of their beat during hours when they were not patrolling.
Maintaining beat cops is often very expensive for police departments in terms of manpower — officers who are assigned to specific blocks and neighborhoods cannot usually participate in other investigations or cases. The investment usually pays off by creating a positive image for the department and by showing members of the community that the police care. Most departments also cite a general decrease in crime in neighborhoods with beat cops. Maintaining a local presence makes it clear that crime will not be tolerated — this is often particularly beneficial in crime-ridden or otherwise troubled areas. Though a beat cop may not make a lot of arrests, his or her very presence often makes it easier to keep the peace.
Beat cops may also perform small services for members of the community, like keeping an eye on elderly residents, assisting with traffic control at busy times of the day, or answering questions and concerns from local residents. If a beat cop has a patrol car, it is often left parked at a strategic point in the neighborhood for easy accessibility; mounted officers and bicycle cops usually make a habit of moving slowly and varying the route to make sure that people know they are both present and aware.