6/7/10 - the beat cop

In today's excerpt - the "beat cop." Community members regularly lament the demise of the beat cop—the officer who knew everyone in the neighborhood, who chastised wayward children and settled disputes between neighbors and family members without ever having to resort to making an arrest. But the idealized beat cop is a myth that has never existed in the real world of constrained budgets, and backlogs of unsolved crimes, according to John Timoney, four-star police chief in the New York City Police Department, later Police Commissioner of Philadelphia, and then Police Chief of Miami:

"Over the course of my career, [the lament I heard repeatedly from community members was] 'the only thing I really want is a cop on the beat, like the guy who patrolled the streets when I was growing up.'

"The first time I heard the lament regarding officers who knew their community was when I was a young police officer walking a foot beat in the South Bronx in the early 1970s. The sentiment seemed to make sense, but as I thought back to when I was a young teenager growing up in Washington Heights, I didn't remember a police officer walking the beat. I do remember police officers in police cars who broke our chops on a daily basis for playing stickball in the street or curveball underneath Mrs. Lemondrop's window. I concluded that the reason I didn't remember a specific police officer in my community on his foot beat was because foot beats must have stopped in the late 1950s and thus were a thing of the past. Fast-forward twenty years: as a captain and later as a deputy chief, I continued to hear the same lament from people who were aged forty or fifty—my age!

"In Philadelphia and then again in Miami, the longing for the days of the foot beat officer who knew everyone in the neighborhood and who chastised wayward children and settled disputes between neighbors and family members without ever having to resort to making an arrest continued to be voiced at community meetings. I vowed to myself that I would find this ubiquitous foot beat officer. After much research, what I did find was that this lament was not of recent vintage. The case of Police Commissioner Louis Valentine is illustrative.

"Valentine entered the NYPD as a rookie in 1902. His rise through the ranks was periodically stalled as he ran afoul of different police administrations due to his desire to see a corruption-free NYPD. Eventually, Valentine became the police commissioner under New York's reform mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia. In his autobiography, Nightstick, Commissioner Valentine lays out what his priorities were when he became police commissioner in 1934. First and foremost among his goals was to return to the days before he first came on 'the job,' about 1903, when the police officer on the beat knew everyone in the neighborhood, and everybody in the neighborhood knew him. ... You get my point.

"My research took me to Hollywood, where I think I found our missing beat officer. His name was Officer McShane. He walked a foot beat in the 1945 movie A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Officer McShane knew the problems of the people on his beat intimately. He was around day and night, and he looked after the neighbors on his beat, including the family with the alcoholic father and exasperated wife and two adorable little girls. Eventually and predictably, the father dies from his affliction and Officer McShane is there to ease the widow's pain. ...

"Yes, I found the beat officer, or should I say, I found the myth. There is nothing wrong with this myth. It is really an ideal that most people have regarding police officers in their communities. Most people like police officers or want to like police officers. It is the job of every police officer and every police chief to help make the myth a reality, or at least make the ideal a goal."


John F. Timoney


Beat Cop to Top Cop: A Tale of Three Cities


University of Pennsylvania Press


Copyright 2010 by University of Pennsylvania Press


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