Australian Institute of Criminology

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Executive summary

On 9 July 2009, South Australian Police Brevet Sergeant Jeff Allen was stabbed by a parolee on the Barrier Highway near Yunta, South Australia. Brevet Sergeant Allen was working alone at the time of the incident, sparking renewed debate regarding the risks of deploying single person patrols. As a result, the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) was contracted by the Police Association of South Australia (PASA) to undertake a literature review on the issue of single person police patrols both in Australia and internationally. Instead of focusing solely on the relative advantages and disadvantages of single and two person patrols, four specific research questions were investigated:

  • What are the challenges faced by first-response police officers when performing their duties solo? Specifically, has the policing environment changed since solo policing was introduced?
  • What impact does working alone have on officers being able to successfully perform their duties?
  • How are decisions made to deploy single person patrols?
  • Are single person patrol strategies in line with community expectations?

In this report, current evidence is reviewed in relation to single person patrols, including any decision-making processes used for developing policies and procedures. In addition, national and international research and policies on single person patrols and any associated risks are investigated. Information was collated from peer-reviewed journal articles, newspaper articles, coronial inquests, opinion pieces, court transcripts and personal correspondence. The AIC primarily relied on publicly available sources for information. As there was not a substantial amount of research available on the topic, police associations in Australia and overseas were invited to provide the AIC any information on the issue. In addition, members of the Australasian Libraries in the Emergency Services were also sent a request by the AIC’s JV Barry library to help the AIC locate information on the topic. The AIC also approached police commissioners in each Australian jurisdiction with a request for any information their organisation may have.

The breadth of issues examined for the review meant that some areas were only generally addressed and on occasion, the information available on single person patrols did not provide enough information to answer the specific research questions. As such, many of these questions would benefit from being explored more comprehensively in future research projects.

In general, most relevant Australian research is now around 20 years old and there is almost no contemporary comprehensive Australian research on the topic. Most of the literature examining single person patrols includes a comparison between one and two person patrols in relation to citizen complaints, arrests, efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Furthermore, findings are often mixed and it is difficult to draw firm conclusions regarding single person patrols in Australia in relation to the key research questions. The following is a summary of the literature review findings.

Challenges faced by first-response officers when performing their duties solo

Has the policing environment changed since solo policing was introduced?

It is widely recognised that single person patrols have been in existence since policing was established in Australia. Although there is no clear record of exactly when the practice of single person patrols was introduced in each Australian jurisdiction, in 1990 single person patrols were used as a deployment option by all Australian police forces (Wilson & Brewer 1991a). This literature review has focused primarily on changes since this time.

  • Single person patrols are employed across police agencies both nationally and internationally. Even though the practice is widespread, the nature and operation of single person patrol policies differ not only between, but also within jurisdictions. This can vary from being used as a common deployment option for traffic-related duties (such is the case in Victoria), to an outright ban on the practice in Western Australia.
  • Over the past three decades, these changes have originated from internal factors, such as shifts in policing strategies and management (Fleming & Rhodes 2004), and from external factors, such as shifts in crime trends and offender characteristics. During this time, there has been a move from reactive and crime response-oriented policing approaches to more of a service-oriented model via community policing practices (Murray 2005).

Changes in crime rates and types of offenders

  • Over the last 10 years, there has been an overall decrease in offending across most crime types in Australia (Davis & Dossetor 2010; Roberts & Indermaur 2009).
  • Yet while most crime types appear to be decreasing, the number of certain violent offences have either remained stable or have increased (Bricknell 2008).
  • Eighty-one percent of assaults against police in Adelaide in 2009 were alcohol-related, as were 77 percent of cases of hindering/resisting arrest (SAPOL 2010a).
  • The rate of police contact with intoxicated offenders is not decreasing and police are frequently the first point of contact with mentally ill people entering the criminal justice system (Ogloff et al. 2006). Encounters between police and mentally ill individuals usually involve arrests for misdemeanours or petty crimes, or when individuals have been detained for their own safety and/or the safety of others (Clifford 2010).

The impact of working alone has on officers being able to successfully perform their duties

  • However, it is widely recognised that police officers are faced with greater occupational health and safety (OH&S) risks than other occupations regardless of patrol mode (see Brandl & Stroshine 2003; Mayhew 2001). Research has generally focused on two areas of solo policing and police patrols—the effectiveness and safety of the practice, and the perception of single person patrols by police officers. Single person patrols are often considered appealing from an efficiency and cost-effective standpoint, whereas two person patrols are considered preferable from a safety perspective (Johnson 1999; Wilson & Brewer 1991a).

Single person patrols and injury

  • Researchers in Australia and the United States have found no statistical difference in safety between the single and two person patrols (del Carmen & Guevara 2003; Wilson & Brewer 1991a). Specifically, officers were assaulted at the same rate regardless of their assignment to single or two person patrols (del Carmen & Guevara 2003; Wilson & Brewer 1991a).
  • Although the rate of assault may be similar between the two staffing modes, the likelihood of sustaining injury during an assault was statistically more likely for those patrolling alone compared with those patrolling in pairs (Wilson, Brunck & Meyer 1990). This might indicate that although the rates of assault may appear similar, the severity of injury could be greater for those officers working alone.
  • In the United States, there were higher levels of felonious officer deaths among agencies with a higher proportion of single person patrol vehicles (Pate & Fridell 1993). By contrast, it has been found that police assigned to single person patrol vehicles in the United States were less likely to be killed while at work than those in two person patrols (Kaminski 2002).

Resistance

  • Even though single person patrols were less likely to be dispatched to some tasks, the level of resistance officers encountered and the numbers of injuries sustained in single person patrols in general did not differ significantly from those encountered by two person patrols (Wilson & Brewer 1991b).
  • Levels of resistance faced by police were not influenced by factors such as location (eg rural cf urban), officer characteristics, jurisdiction, or the nature of patrol (ie 1 or 2 officers; Wilson & Brewer 1991a). A comparison of use of force incidents found use of force incidents occurred for more two person patrols than single person patrols (Hastings 2007).

Effectiveness/efficiency

  • Single person patrols are considered by some as more efficient than two person patrols on the assumption that two single person patrols can cover twice as much area and be available for twice as many calls than one two person patrol car (Bureau of Justice Statistics cited in del Carmen & Guevara 2003). Despite this, the increased efficiency of single person patrols has been questioned, with the effectiveness of most police services (eg number of calls for service handled, total arrest rate) found to be unrelated to the type of patrol staffing mode (Wilson & Brewer 1991a).
  • Although two person patrols tended to handle incidents more quickly, overall activity levels were found to be comparable between one and two person staffing (Wilson & Brewer 1991a). In addition, Wilson (1990) found that there were only minor benefits associated with increased police visibility, deterrence and crime detection as a result of the increase in number of cars on the road from single person patrols.

Workplace attitudes to working in single person patrols

  • Australian research has identified a preference for two person patrols (Brewer & Karp 1991). Particular concerns from UK officers included that solo work was strenuous, increased the feeling of constantly having to ‘watch one’s own back’, not wanting to engage with potential threats late at night and they considered themselves easy targets (Prissell 2009).
  • In the United States, researchers found that police believed the performance levels between one and two person patrols were comparable (del Carmen & Guevara 2003), but two person patrols were considered preferable at night. In areas where police were not as trusted by the public, two person patrols were considered better and were believed to respond faster to calls than single person patrols (del Carmen & Guevara 2003).
  • Research also found that although officers expressed resistance to single person patrol modes when asked directly which patrol mode they preferred, some indicated a number of tasks that might be considered appropriate for single person patrols (Brewer & Karp 1991). In addition, some officers have indicated a preference for working alone (Hastings 2007). However, it was cautioned that negative occupational outcomes could be expected among officers who perceived increased dangers resulting from single person patrols and who were still required to undertake these patrols (Brewer & Karp 1991).
  • In the United States, researchers investigating police occupational stress identified that working solo and at night without immediate backup could heighten the stress felt by officers (Violanti et al. 2008).

Legislative requirements

  • In Australia, the legislative requirement relating to duty of care and providing a safe workplace for employees is unclear about what actions and compliance are required explicitly in relation to single person patrols (Association News 2007).
  • Occupational health and safety concerns led to the abolition of single person patrols in Western Australia. The WA Police rely on Regulation 3.3 of the WA OH&S Regulations to provide guidance regarding a safe work place for employees. This regulation requires the employer to provide reliable means of communication for isolated employees (ie those working alone). As the current WA Police communications and phone system cannot provide reliable means of communication for isolated employees, single person patrols would have been unable to comply with this regulation (WAPU representative personal communication 23 November 2011).

Guidelines and training

  • The majority of training techniques and tactics used in training are based on a two person patrol situation. Therefore, a need may exist for the development of operational guidelines specific to each patrol mode; it has been suggested that it is not enough to develop one set of guidelines to cover all modes in all circumstances (Wilson & Brewer 1991a).

Police misconduct, corruption and corroboration

  • Whereas much research has been dedicated to single person patrols and its influence on safety and workplace efficiency, its relationship with the corroboration of court evidence, corruption and misconduct has not been adequately explored in the literature.
  • Although police misconduct and corruption have been widely researched, studies do not specifically examine patrol mode (ie single or 2 person patrols) as a factor. Instead, research in these areas chiefly examines complaints against the police, types of misconduct and the characteristics of the officer(s) in question.

How are decisions made when deciding to deploy single person patrols?

The extent of single person patrol practices differs between and within jurisdictions in Australia. Research from 1990 indicated that limited evidence existed to show that task ratings were based on systematic investigations, with researchers concluding that taskings were more likely to be based on a consensus arising from knowledge and experience of operational policing, with much of the responsibility for the deployment of single person patrols relying on the judgement of the dispatching personnel (Wilson 1991). However, certain conditions were also used to determine when one officer police cars were tasked. These conditions included:

  • time of day, with increased use of single person patrols during daylight hours;
  • population density, with more densely populated districts or where barriers to travel were prevalent, employed fewer single person patrols; and
  • risk involved in individual taskings which were typically broken down into ‘low’ and ‘high’ risk activities (Wilson 1991; Wilson & Brewer 1991a).
  • The single person patrol policies reviewed for this report appear to be based on risk-management principles. With the exception of the current WA Police policy, low-risk tasks (often based on a predetermined risk scale) are usually considered suitable for single person patrols (Wilson 1991).
  • Depending on the jurisdiction, the decision to deploy a single person patrol can be made by police dispatchers, supervisors and sometimes on the basis of the officer being comfortable about responding alone, usually by making an assessment based on perceived risks.
  • There was no Australian research available that has evaluated single person patrol strategies to determine the effects—either positive or negative—were the same after its widespread implementation.
  • Only one United States study in San Diego appeared to revisit the adoption of a single person patrol policy that was introduced after a viability assessment was conducted on its feasibility. It was found that the widespread application of single person patrols was eventually abandoned in San Diego due to a corresponding increase in officer mortality over the same period (Prunckun 1990). It is unclear whether the single person patrol policy was directly correlated with the increased mortality rate or whether other environmental or contextual factors were more likely the cause.

Are single person patrol strategies in line with community expectations?

The majority of literature surrounding community expectations of police does not assess the role of single person patrols as a strategy to improve citizens’ trust, confidence and satisfaction with police. Community perceptions and expectations of police are often linked to an individual’s background, age and experience of contact with police (eg Brown & Benedict 2002; Hinds & Murphy 2007; Skogan 2005). When police interact with people, people expect to be treated with fairness and respect. The quality of police interaction, rather than mode of patrol, appears more relevant in improving people’s satisfaction and reducing complaints against police.

Future directions

Due to the paucity of recent Australian research on single person patrols, the topic would benefit significantly from further investigation. Further, any research into single person patrols should be expanded to encompass issues beyond those relating to personal safety and effectiveness and updated to reflect the contemporary Australian policing environment. In addition, many of the international findings on single person patrols would need to be tested in Australia to see if they are applicable to the Australian context.

Despite most research focusing on the activities considered appropriate or inappropriate for single person patrols, there was little comprehensive research on the overall impact on officer effectiveness, beyond factors such as response times and complaints. As the San Diego experience highlighted, it may be worthwhile investigating if the impact of widespread adoption of single person patrol policies results in any negative, positive or unintended consequences.

The literature shows that there is often a difference between police management and operational police perceptions of the merits of single person patrols. Police management often employ single person patrol policies on the basis of factors such as efficiency and finite resources (eg Hastings 2007; Legislative Council of Tasmania 2010) balanced with officer safety concerns; however, many operational police and their associations believe that the risks outweigh any perceived benefits. However, it should not be assumed that management and officers fall neatly into either category, or that the issue has only two distinct and opposing views that are always going to be in conflict. Another issue is whether an officer’s wellbeing and perceptions of safety should be overruled in favour of a risk assessment tool that has been primarily designed to focus on response times and community satisfaction for example.

Particular gaps in the available research include:

  • how management have made decisions and policies regarding single person patrols;
    • considerations of policing environment, inquiries, OH&S requirements and how policies are delivered in practice;
  • how frontline officers perceive single person patrols;
    • if it affects among other things their decision-making processes, safety, efficiency, health and effectiveness;
  • community opinion on single person patrols;
    • does it affect feelings of safety, service delivery and whether single person patrols can impact on police members’ families and friends;
  • how single person patrols can affect the ethics and accountability of officers performing their duties;
  • how single person patrols affect corroboration of evidence, opportunities for misconduct and other related factors;
  • whether single person patrols are viewed differently or have a differential impact on individuals from Indigenous or culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities; and
  • with the practical implementation of single person patrol policies can be affected by location and other resourcing requirements (such as any differences in rural/remote/regional/urban settings and available equipment).

Although the policy has not yet been evaluated, Western Australia provides an example of how police management and a police association can work together to produce a mutually agreed upon single person patrol policy. Despite having to police a vast area with many remote police stations, WA Police was able to create a policy that essentially phased out single person patrols, with only a few administrative and community duties that were agreed upon between WA Police and Western Australia Police Union of Workers (WAPU) classified as suitable for being performed alone. It can be assumed that the common justifications for the use of single person patrols revolving around efficiency, cost effectiveness and resources were considered. The practical implementation of this policy has not been flawless; however, the policy development process could be a useful case study for other jurisdictions considering a similar policy. Finally, it would be worthwhile to evaluate the sustainability and effectiveness of the policy in practice and whether it is an appropriate model for other police agencies to consider.