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Perceptions of Safety
A comparison of foot patrol versus motor patrol
by Robert Trojanowicz and Dennis Banas
click here for printable PDF version

Introduction: Fear in Police Work

Fear is a complex emotion, one which can be either a healthy response to real danger or an irrational reaction to circumstances merely perceived as threatening. Although "...it continues...to perform its survival function, in all too many instances it becomes a reason in itself for behaviors that are life defeating. It moves the individual to self-defense when no self-defense is called for; making him withdraw from situations where his own best interests, and those of others, can only be served by his confident approach; making him repulse as enemies those who might otherwise enter into fellowship with him." (1) Fear's transcendent characteristics include a set of physiological adjustments---the "flight or fight" phenomena, externalized expressions of anxiety, and efforts to manage subjectively perceived threats. (2) Although these universal elements color judgments in all work settings, occupational expectations sometimes limit the options available to individuals in handling fearful situations. In such settings the experience of fear is magnified severely.

Even though police work is not the most unsafe career an individual can pursue, it provides only limited choices in managing perceived threats. Officers do not enjoy the luxury of escaping from certain situations. They are supposed to be problem solvers and mediators promoting conflict resolution. They are also commissioned to handle dangerous situations which produce anxiety and fear. Their role, lionized by the popular mythologies of television and literature, includes unrealistic dimensions: they are supposed to be both sensitive individuals capable of delicate, sophisticated, tactful interventions and martial arts wizards trained to respond to crises with superior physical prowess. (3) In either case, the social and occupational constraints of police work reduce the "flight or fight" response into a direct, forward and unequivocal, but not necessarily physical, confrontation with perceived threats. The occupational realities of policing dictate a "fight" pattern to individual officers.

Police work is unique not only because the management of subjectively defined danger occurs within limited alternative boundaries, but also because fear is ubiquitous. Officers are ever conscious of the fact that violent exchanges are always a very real possibility. (Even the most talented computer programs cannot predict life-threatening situations with any degree of accuracy.) The ubiquity of fear in policing has become a standard reference in popular culture---the officers of television's Hill Street Blues are admonished every week to "do it to them before they do it to us."(4) The inherent weight of police responsibility intensifies the element of fear:

Should a civilian make an error of judgment, while in many instances this can lead to serious career problems, in most it simply involves redoing some aspect of his work. Unfortunately, for the police professional, a judgmental error may well involve the loss of life, that of another or his own. The problem is compounded by the fact that he often does not have the option of deliberating over the proper course to take. The time element is all too often too critical in the performance of his duties to allow that. (5)

Police officers frequently exercise their responsibilities within a vacuum.

Their alienation from the communities they serve has become a sociological cliche, one which is worth discussing in relation to the problem of fear. (6) Although officers enter into constant contact with citizens, they do so without developing any degree of intimacy.(7) (The dramatic increase in service calls reflects the quantity of police interactions with their communities.) Sequestered in patrol cars, responding to cryptically coded radio calls, officers know little about the social norms or the occupants of any given community.(8) Reciprocally, citizens become passive in relation to policing. They do not act as buffers between the police and potentially hostile environments. As a consequence, officers not only perceive the environment to be volatile, they also begin to ascribe dangerous attributes to the inhabitants of the communities they serve. The mental framework officers construct is similar to that which American soldiers exhibited in Vietnam: operating on an unfamiliar terrain with little knowledge of its occupants, officers must assume that every man, woman and young person is a potential threat.(9) This mentality exacerbates the dimension of fear in police work, raising anxiety to an excruciating level.

Beleaguered by an aggressive, dangerous world, police officers adopt protective occupational patterns. "The person who is possessed by fear expects to be hurt. Expecting to be hurt, he works up a way of life that is primarily a way of playing it safe."(10) Since "playing it safe" by retreating is not an alternative for officers, they develop occupational attributes in an attempt to control and tame the external environment. Suspiciousness, aloofness, excessive cautiousness and authoritarianism---even in the safest police/citizen exchanges---are all expressions of fear and anxiety. These tend to alienate police further from their communities. In this sense, fear is a dialectical phenomenon: it is endemic in police work, but it is also a variable which defines the way in which policing is conducted.

Officers exhibit fear collectively as well as individually. Police unions sometimes institutionalize the anxieties of professional law enforcement. When the Boston Police Commissioner, Edmund MacNamara, ordered officers to wear nametags on their shirts and coats in order to improve and personalize community relations, the Patrolmen's Association balked. It "...objected that the tags would expose the men to easier identification and their families to possible harassment."(11) The commissioner suspended the order after officers began picketing and the International Ladies Garment Workers' Union refused to sew the tags on to uniforms.(12) The Patrolmen's Association in Boston also reacted negatively to the redeployment of officers from two person cars to single officer foot beats. The safety of the officers was the major concern.(13)

Simply because officers are involved in numerous daily interactions with citizens, their sense of safety is a critical issue. An overly fearful officer can actively contribute to tension when responding to calls and entering into dialogues with citizens. Fear itself can lead to negative interactions ranging from verbal exchanges to physical altercations (including the use of deadly force) both of which are detremental to the citizen and the officer alike.(14) The present research will compare the perceptions of safety exhibited by foot patrol officers when compared to motor patrol officers in order to determine if a particular form of policing can help diffuse the element of fear in law enforcement.

Community Policing: The Flint Experiment

The police officers of Flint, Michigan serve as the basis for the comparisons made in this research report. The Flint Police Department operated solely with motorized or preventive patrols until January 1979, at which point the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation provided funding for the implementation of experimental community based foot patrols.

Flint's Neighborhood Foot Patrol Program was unique in a variety of ways. It emerged from an initiative which integrated citizens into the planning and implementation process through citywide neighborhood meetings in 1977 and 1978. It attempted to ameliorate three distinct problems: (1) the absence of comprehensive neighborhood organizations and services, (2) the lack of citizen involvement in crime prevention, and (3) the depersonalization of interactions between officers and residents. The program began in 1979 with 22 foot patrol officers assigned to 14 experimental areas which included about 20 percent of the city's population.

The Flint program's salient features were a radical departure from both preventive patrol and traditional foot patrol models. Flint's foot patrol officers did not limit their activities to downtown or business areas. They were based in and accessible to all types of socioeconomic neighborhoods. Their crime prevention efforts went beyond organizing neighborhood watches. They attempted to serve as catalysts in the formation of neighborhood associations which articulated community expectations of the police and established foot patrol priorities and community programs. Foot patrol officers also worked in partnership with community organizations and individual citizens to deliver a comprehensive set of services through referrals, interventions and links to governmental social agencies. The foot patrol officers reconciled their role with the reality of policing: they not only provided full law enforcement services, as did their motorized counterparts, but they made a conscious effort to focus on the social service aspects of their job, bringing problems to a resolution. They were unusual in that they mobilized citizens in order to provide a matrix within which communities could deal with many of their own problems, including---but not exclusively---crime. Since they patrolled and interacted in the same areas day after day, week after week, they developed a degree of intimacy with residents which translated into an effective cooperative relationship.

The results of the Flint experiment in the 14 areas have been erviewed, as were 47 motorized officers. The foot officers patrolled their beats alone; motorized officers worked in pairs. Since foot officers did not patrol in the evening, motorized officers were drawn randomly from day or afternoon shifts. They also patrolled the same general areas as the foot patrol officers. Matching foot and motorized officers established a degree of control over extraneous variables.

The questions concerning safety posed to the officers were part of a more extensive set of interviews. The questions were pretested during 1979 in order to insure their validity.(16) Five specific interview questions raised the issue of safety: (1)How safe do you feel walking/driving in your area? (2) How safe do you feel entering buildings in your area? (3) How safe do you feel answering complaints in your area? (4) How safe do you feel helping victims in your area? (5) How safe to you feel conducting field interviews in your area?

Although the data collected in 1980 concerning officers' perceptions of safety controlled for extraneous variables, the issue of fear in police work remained significant enough to warrant future investigations. Given the possibility of a Hawthorne effect in the 1980 data, the research on safety was duplicated, expanded and administered again in January and February 1984, exactly four years after the original evaluation and over one year after the expansion of foot patrol to the entire city of Flint.

The 1984 follow-up study was based upon interviews with all 64 foot officers. Again, motorized officers were matched (see Table 1 for identifying data). Fifty officers assigned to motorized patrol were drawn randomly from day and afternoon shifts. (Thirty-three foot and 22 motorized officers worked days; 31 foot and 28 motor patrol officers worked afternoon shifts.) All officers interviewed in 1984 were asked the same five questions originally posed in 1980 (see above). Two additional questions were asked in 1984: (1) How safe do you feel walking in your area out of uniform? (2) How safe do you feel walking in your area when off duty?

Both in 1980 and 1984, officers ranked their responses to the questions on a Likert-type scale.(17) Their responses could range from: (1) not safe at all, to (2) somewhat safe, or (3) very safe. In the 1984 research, foot and motorized patrol officers were also asked "How would you evaluate the resident's feelings of safety in your area?" Again, the respondents could choose among three rankings: (1) residents overestimate danger, (2) residents are right on target, or (3) residents underestimate danger. The 1984 groups also responded to the question "How active will residents in your area be if you are in trouble?" Their choices were: (1) not at all active, (2) somewhat active, or (3) very active. They were also asked "How does safety in your patrol area compare to the rest of Flint?" The respective choices were: (1) safer, (2) the same, or (3) less safe. Finally, the 1984 respondents were asked to estimate the average number of stop and frisks (pat-downs) they conducted in any given week. All officers in 1980 and 1984 were given an opportunity to explain each of their responses.

T-tests were used to compare foot and motorized patrol officers' responses to both the 1980 and 1984 interviews. The 1984 data were also grouped into cells so that foot and motorized patrol officers could be compared on the basis of race, gender, age, years of police experience and prior military service. Using SPSS (Statistical Package for the Social Sciences) chi squares were run on these cells in order to test for significant differences.


The Appendix contains all the results of the 1980 and 1984 research. The major findings will be presented in this section.

The results of the 1980 interviews were consistent on all five questions. To a statistically significant degree, foot patrol officers felt safer, in the conduct of their work, than their motorized counterparts (Table 2). During the interview process, foot patrol officers attempted to explain their sense of security. They most frequently cited their familiarity with the neighborhoods they patrolled and its residents. They felt that they could easily identify potential problems and "trouble-makers." Foot patrol officers also felt that they knew the geographic areas for which they were responsible. They knew precisely what buildings could be entered safely and at what point in the day they could be entered. They felt confident that they know when to call for backup, and equally confident that community residents would aid them if necessary.

The results of the 1984 follow-up study were the same as those which emerged in 1980. Foot patrol officers felt significantly safer than motorized officers (Table 3). Their reasons for feeling safer were exactly the same as in 1980. When asked to evaluate residents' perception of safety, 1984's foot officers felt to a significantly greater degree than motorized officers that citizens overestimated dangers within the community (Table 4). These findings clearly reflect officers' perceptions of community safety, rather than the residents' own objective experience or subjective perception of danger.

In 1984, foot officers felt more confident than motorized officers that citizens would be active in helping them if they were in trouble (Table 5). The type of assistance foot officers expected fell far short of vigilantism. They anticipated that residents would help them by, for example, phoning for backup, illuminating patrol areas with porch lights, and intervening on occasion. There were specific examples of citizen assistance. One such example involved an incident where a foot officer, after dark, was being harassed by a group of teenagers. Some of the residents of the neighborhood heard the commotion and they telephoned their neighbors asking them to turn on their porch lights. With the area illuminated, the teenagers left, possibly defusing a situation that could have led to a physical confrontation.

Foot officers in 1984 felt more than motorized officers that their patrol areas were safer than the rest of Flint (Table 6). This was mainly because they were familiar with their own area and comfortable in interacting in it. They also conducted far fewer pat-downs than motorized officers (Table 7). Foot officers generally felt that they did not need to frisk citizens simply because they knew community residents and felt safe with most of them. They tended to pat-down on occasion those residents who were known "troublemakers" or individuals who were totally alien to the community and who were acting suspiciously.

When the 1984 comparative groups are analyzed by subvariables, the significant differences between foot and motorized officers do not substantially change. Regardless of age, race, gender, prior police experience or military service, foot patrol officers perceive themselves to be safer on their patrols than motorized officers.


The research indicates that the null hypothesis ("there will be no statistically significant differences between foot and motorized patrol officers perceptions of safety") must be rejected. Foot patrol officers in 1980 and 1984 perceived themselves to be safer than motorized officers. Foot patrol officers were well integrated into the communities for which they were responsible. As a consequence, they were more familiar with the terrain and the citizens living within their jurisdictions. They were familiar with community norms, and had less reason to rely on overt expressions of social control, such as pat-downs. Foot patrol officers were more confident that their communities would be active in crime prevention and control and in coming to the officers' aid if necessary.

All but a small number of foot patrol officers had been experienced motor patrol officers prior to their foot patrol assignment. They indicated that, as motorized officers, they too had serious doubts about their safety. Only when they had joined foot patrol did they become intimate enough with their neighborhoods and the residents to feel more secure. Given these findings, the community policing model, as it was exercised in Flint, is one potential mechanism for diffusing the element of fear in police work. It creates a context in which officers perceive themselves to be safer. They can be expected to act accordingly, reducing the choice of negative interactions significantly, even in situations where the use of deadly force may be considered. The markedly improved relations between the police and the community were both real and perceived, and foot patrol officers when compared to motor officers felt police/community relations had improved significantly (Table 8).

CLICK HERE FOR FULL APPENDIX & TABLE DATA - please allow significant download time for table data to load


  1. Bonarow Overstreet, Understanding Fear in Ourselves and Others (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1951), p. 16.
  2. Stanley Rachman, The Meaning of Fear (Manchester, England: C. Nicholls and Co., 1974), p. 12; Hans Selye, M.D. The Stress of Life (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978), pp. 3-54.
  3. James Q. Wilson, "Movie Cops---Romantic Vs. Real" in Arthur Neiderhoffer and Abraham S. Blumberg, eds., The Ambivalent Force: Perspectives on the Police (Waltham, Massachusetts: Xerox College Publishing, 1970), pp. 64-66; Samuel Walker, Popular Justice: A History of American Criminal Justice (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), pp. 133-193; Robert M. Fogelson, Big-City Police (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1977), pp. 141-268.
  4. The use of popular forms of entertainment as historical evidence in this analysis owes much to James Q. Wilson's and Robert M. Fogelson's works, cited previously.
  5. William D. Haynes, Stress Related Disorders in Policemen (San Francisco, California: R & E Research Associates, 1978), p. 19.
  6. Arthur Niederhoffer, Behind the Shield: The Police in Urban Society (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Co., 1967), pp. 90-102.
  7. Samuel Walker, "'Broken Windows'" and Fractured History: The Use and Misuse of History in Recent Police Patrol Analysis," Justice Quarterly, Volume 1, No. 1 (March 1984), pp. 79-82.
  8. James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, "Broken Windows," The Atlantic Monthly (March 1982), pp. 29-39.
  9. James Peacock, a former Atlanta police officer, suggested this parallel to the authors. See: C.R. Figley, ed., Stress Disorders Among Vietnam Veterans: Theory, Treatment and Research (New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1978).
  10. Overstreet, p. 24.
  11. Stephen C. Halpern, Police-Association and Department Leaders: The Politics of Co-Optation (Lexington, Massachusetts: D.C. Heath and Co., 1974), p. 8.
  12. Ibid. See also Richard M. Ayers, "Case Studies of Police Strikes in Two Cities---Albuquerque and Oklahoma City," Journal of Police Science and Administration, Vol. 5, No. 1 (1977), pp. 19-31.
  13. Law Enforcement News, Vol. IX, No. 6 (March 1983), p. 1.
  14. Frank Horvath and Michael Donahue, Deadly Force: An Analysis of Shootings by Police in Michigan (Lansing, Michigan: Office of Criminal Justice, Department of Management and Budget, 1982), passim.
  15. Robert C. Trojanowicz, et al., An Evaluation of the Neighborhood Foot Patrol Program in Flint, Michigan (East Lansing, Michigan: The National Neighborhood Foot Patrol Center, Michigan State University, 1982), passim.
  16. Questions were adapted from various government surveys.
  17. David Dugger and Robert Baldwin assisted in the 1980 data collection and analysis. Jesse Thompson and Hazel Harden assisted in the 1984 data collection. Susan Trojanowicz constructed all the tables found in the Appendix.

The Community Policing Series was published in the late 1980s and early 1990s by the National Center for Community Policing at Michigan State University's School of Criminal Justice, with support from the C. S. Mott Foundation of Flint, Michigan. This article appeared in 1985.

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