So You Want To Be a Crime Fighter? Not So Fast

Written by Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D.

Many police officers typically view themselves as crime fighters or crook catchers and the media tends to portray policing in the same fashion. As a consequence, many people seeking careers in law enforcement do so because of the “exciting” connotation surrounding police work. But how accurate is this view of policing? How much actual crime fighting do cops really do? Perhaps the best way to answer these questions is to look at the research on police activity.

While there are variations among the studies on what police officers actually do on their jobs and variation across different police departments, we can make some general observations about police activities and crime fighting.

One of the earliest studies of police work found about one-half of the calls received by police dealt with problem solving rather than crime fighting. Similarly, Wilson’s classic study of the calls received by the Syracuse, New York, Police Department found approximately 10% of the calls police received were related to law enforcement, 30% to order maintenance, 22% to information gathering, and 38% to service calls. Other studies of calls to the police in St. Louis and Detroit found only 16% were related to law enforcement functions. Research that examines official police records indicates only a small percentage of what the police do on a daily basis directly involves crime fighting or law enforcement activities.

More recently, a number of studies have attempted to identify how patrol officers spend time through observational research rather than reviewing police records. A study of police officers in Cincinnati, Ohio, for example, found officers spent about one-third of their time on patrol (uncommitted), about 20% of the time responding to non-crime calls, and only about 17% of the time responding to crime-related calls. About 13% of their time was devoted to administrative matters, such as court time or completing reports, and 9% of the time was considered to be personal time, such as eating or attending to personal matters. The remaining 7% of their time was devoted to dealing with the public in terms of providing assistance or information, problem solving, and attending community meetings.

When one looks at all the research on what police officers actually do, it is safe to say that very little of a police officer’s day is directly devoted to the stereotypical depiction of cop as “crime fighter.” Indeed, a television cop probably sees more crime fighting action in a single season than many cops see in their entire careers.

Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D.
Associate Dean
School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University

Published on February 12, 2013