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Challenges faced by first-response officers when performing single person patrols

Has the policing environment changed since single person patrols were introduced?

Although there is no current record of when the practice of single person patrols was introduced in each Australian jurisdiction, researchers identified that in 1990, single person patrols were used as a deployment option by all Australian police organisations (Wilson & Brewer 1991a). Single person patrols are not unique to Australia, with the practice being common across the United States, United Kingdom and Canada. There is no uniform application of single person patrols across Australian police organisations as each jurisdiction has developed its own policies. The precise nature of these policies varies and they have often changed over time. However, the types of influencing factors include:

  • available research (eg Victoria Police);
  • reaction to adverse events while patrolling alone (eg WA Police); or
  • based on consultations with management and staff (eg NSW Police).

A more thorough review of current single person patrol policies is available in the third section. However, single person patrol policies are not implemented in isolation and need to be considered in relation to the current policing environment in which the policies operate. This section will provide a broad overview of the changes and challenges faced by police over the past 30 years. How these have influenced single person patrols will be briefly outlined here, but will be examined more thoroughly in the subsequent sections.

Changes in police management and structure

Policing in Australia and internationally has undergone significant change over the past 30 years. Police reform agendas can often be attributed to a drive to improve efficiency and effectiveness, improving police and community relationships, and the exposure of police corruption and other misconduct offences (see Fleming & Rhodes 2004). In the last 20 years, police agencies have seen a movement towards ‘managerialism’ (Fleming & Rhodes 2004: 6). This is a product of police being under pressure to demonstrate efficiency and accountability with the finite resources available, often relying on meeting set performance indicators (Fleming & Rhodes 2004). At the same time, there has been an increase in working in partnerships with local communities to improve the relationship between police and the public (Fleming & Rhodes 2004). In particular, over the last three decades, there has been an attempt to shift from traditionally reactive and action-oriented policing to a service-oriented community model (Murray 2005). This is commonly manifested in community policing.

Community policing is a vague concept that has many different dimensions. Generally, it is considered an inclusive form of policing and can be characterised by high-visibility (often expressed through increased foot patrols), in conjunction with ‘problem solving, peacemaking, interagency work and active involvement of community members’ (Bartkowiak-Theron & Corbo Crehan 2011: 22). The traditional model of policing draws heavily on paramilitary models, which are characterised by rank-based authority and command and control processes within a hierarchical organisational structure. Conversely, community policing is a contemporary policing approach that is based on encouraging cooperative partnership between the community and the police to address the incidence of crime, antisocial behaviour and social disorder perception through neighbourhood patrols and problem-solving approaches (Murray 2005). In essence, community policing promotes proactive policing rather than the traditional reactive approach (Sarre 1996).

Although the concept of community policing in Australia has been promoted since the 1970s (Sarre 1996), its importance as a strategy to not only improve police services but also to promote more trust and accountability in police was reinforced by many inquiries into police corruption within Australia (eg see 1997 Royal Commission into the NSW Police Force (Wood 1997)). Its importance as a key policing strategy has continued to gain traction, with all Australian police organisations, including South Australia, currently making community policing principles a core function of police operations in varying degrees.

Community policing often requires large structural and procedural changes of police organisations (Weitekamp, Kerner & Meier 2001). These changes are needed to accommodate, among other things, a shift from reactive to proactive policing, the adoption of a decentralised approach to better make use of an officer’s local knowledge and discretion (Moore & Trojanowicz cited in Weitekamp, Kerner & Meier 2001), and to promote two-way communication between police and citizens so they can work in partnership to address community crime concerns (Weitekamp, Kerner & Meier 2001). However, Fleming (2011) notes that although policing organisations continue to espouse the practice, as yet no jurisdiction has restructured their agency to adequately accommodate the full community policing paradigm.

In addition, what is yet to be investigated is how (or if) single person patrols fit into this paradigm. A priori, it is possible that single person patrols would be compatible with certain elements of community policing (see Western Australia single person patrol policy in the third section) and would also provide more opportunity to increase police visibility (Wilson & Brewer 1992), therefore improving community satisfaction with police. However, this has not yet been tested. Overall, there is little information on the relationship between single person patrols and community policing. By contrast, and as outlined below, the influence and role of risk management strategies on single person patrol policies is more clearly delineated.

Coincidental to the rise of community policing has been the increased adoption of risk management approaches within Australian police agencies. The management of risk is a significant corporate responsibility of police agencies that must be addressed through policy, selection, training, evaluation and supervision (Wilson 1996). Even though the total elimination of risk is generally recognised as impractical, the identification and management of risks is a more attainable goal (Wilson 1996).

Risk management strategies are sometimes at odds with the views of police unions. A recent example includes the single person patrol risk assessment practices discussed at the Tasmania Government Estimates Committee in 2010. The Acting Commissioner of Police in Tasmania discussed the development of a policy that included room for single person patrols and responses, with the inclusion of a risk management approach. In this instance, the officer attending is required to take a risk management approach, based on the information received over the radio and conditions observed at the scene (Legislative Council of Tasmania 2010). The South Australian Police Service (SAPOL) has also proposed a risk assessment model of determining police deployment in single or two person patrols in their ‘demand management’ strategy (SAPOL 2010b).

A further change in the policing environment is the increasing proportion of women in policing since the first female officers were appointed in New South Wales in 1915 (Wilkinson & Froyland 1996). In 2006, 23 percent of Australian police were women, almost double the percentage of 1996 (Irving 2009). Australia has also had its first female Police Commissioner, Christine Nixon, who was Victoria Police’s Chief Commissioner between April 2001 and February 2009. In Australia from 1996 to 2006, there was a 70 percent increase in women in policing, a much larger increase than the 44 percent increase in England and Wales over the same period (Irving 2009). However, in 2009, Australia had the same proportion of female police officers as England and Wales (23%; Irving 2009). The increasing proportion of female officers has featured in discussions about the deployment of women (Wilkinson & Froyland 1996). Although early expectations of women in policing were that they would not succeed, the research evidence has emphatically rejected this prediction (Wilkinson & Froyland 1996).

Therefore, it is unclear whether the increase in female police officers has made, or should make, a difference to the decision to deploy single person patrols. As Brereton (1999: np) notes

there are some clear differences in how males and females carry out policing tasks, particularly in terms of how they deal with members of the public, and their propensity to become involved in high risk activities.

These factors would arguably make female officers more likely to be suited to some tasks undertaken in a single person patrol. Indeed, the characteristics often associated with female police officers (eg negotiating and communication skills etc) are characteristics promoted in community policing. However, this does not mean that female officers would be more willing to engage in single person patrol activities than male officers. It should also be noted that research on single person patrols seldom makes a distinction between sexes.

Changes in crime rates and types of offenders

Accompanying the shift in police management and practices over this time has been a change in the level of crime in the community, as well as how the community perceives crime. Contrary to widely held perceptions within the community that crime rates are rising, over the last 10 years there has been an overall downward trend across most crime types (Davis & Dossetor 2010; Roberts & Indermaur 2009). However, within this overall pattern, certain violent offences have either remained stable or increased (Bricknell 2008).

A sample of selected crime types is examined below and illustrates some of the changes in Australia for these offences since the mid-1990s. These crime types were selected based on their higher immediate risk to the officer, the unpredictability of these taskings and the availability of data on these crime types. Analysis of the most frequently reported offences against the person in South Australia indicates that minor assault, other offences, other sexual offences and serious assault were the most common offence types (SAPOL 2009). The three most commonly reported property crime offences reported to police in South Australia in 2008–09 were most likely to be other theft offences, property damage offences and theft from motor vehicles (SAPOL 2009). These trends in reported crime can affect patrolling activities and the patrolling environment.


The trend in assaults shows an average growth of five percent each year from 1995 to 2008, nearly four times the annual growth of the Australian population in the same period (Bonython & Dossetor 2010). Assault is generally seasonal (see Figure 1), with the number of assaults peaking in the spring and summer months of October to March and is lowest from April to July. In South Australia, a recent police commissioned report reviewed SAPOL data in relation to alcohol and violence (SAPOL 2010a). Police incident reports between 2004–05 and 2008–09 have shown a gradual increase in the number of minor assaults and offences against the person. In the same time period, assaults against police in the Adelaide central business district rose gradually each year from 92 reports in 2004–05 to 122 in 2008–09, with a peak of 160 in the 2007–08 period (SAPOL 2010a). It can be hypothesised that the rise in violent crime types, and more specifically assault, is likely to increase the challenges faced by police officers, especially those patrolling solo.

Figure 1: Recorded assaults in Australia, 1995–2008 (n per month)


Source: Bonython & Dossetor 2010

Property crime rates

In Australia, property crime rates in 2009 were the lowest recorded in the 14 year period since 1996 (AIC 2011). More specifically, the rate of ‘other theft’ peaked at 3,607 per 100,000 per year in 2001, before declining thereafter. The rate of unlawful entry with intent remained relatively stable from 1996 to 2001 but has since declined and the rate of motor vehicle theft declined by 52 percent between 1996 and 2008, from 671 to 319 (see Figure 2; Bonython & Dossetor 2010).

Figure 2: Property crimes in Australia, 1996–2008 (per 100,000 persons per year)


Note: UEWI=unlawful entry with intent; MVT=motor vehicle theft

Source: Bonython & Dossetor 2010


Robbery is defined by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS 2007) as the unlawful taking of property, without consent, accompanied by force or threat of force. Robbery victims can be persons or organisations and is divided into two categories:

  • armed robbery—robbery conducted with the use of a weapon. A weapon is any object used to cause fear or injury and includes imitation weapons and implied weapons; for example, where a weapon is not seen by the victim but the offender claims to possess one.
  • unarmed robbery—robbery conducted without the use of a weapon (ABS 2007).

Of the 16,508 robberies recorded nationally during 2008, 59 percent were unarmed and 41 percent were committed with some type of weapon (Bonython & Dossetor 2010). Robberies fell from 17,996 in 2007 to 16,509 in 2008 and remained substantially lower than incidents recorded in the early 2000s.The number of armed and unarmed robberies peaked in March 2001 (Bonython & Dossetor 2010). While the absolute numbers were different, armed and unarmed robberies follow similar monthly patterns (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: Robbery victims in Australia, 1995–2008 (n per month)



Source: Bonython & Dossetor 2010

Drugs and crime

The effect of drug use on adult detainees increases the challenges faced by police, with studies in the United States showing more than half of all male arrestees in urban areas are impaired by illicit drugs or psychiatric disorders (Kaminski, DiGiovanni & Downs 2004). Research into the effects of alcohol use on assailants and officer injury has produced mixed findings. Some studies have found that suspects under the influence of alcohol and drugs were no more likely to injure police than those who were sober (Alpert & Dunham 1999) and others have found no relationship between alcohol use by assailants and officer injury (Ellis, Choi & Blaus 1993). Meanwhile, further research has indicated an inverse relationship with sober assailants; that is, some research has found that sober individuals were more likely to injure police than suspects under the influence of alcohol (Kaminski & Sorensen 1995). Finally, other researchers have reported a relationship between alcohol impairment among offenders and use of force by police against offenders, therefore increasing the likelihood of injury for both officer and offender (Garner et al. 1996).

The DUMA program has provided information on the consumption of drugs within Australia since 1999. DUMA involves the quarterly collection of information on drug use and crime from police detainees in selected police stations and watch houses across Australia. Although collection of drug use information from police detainees is voluntary on the detainees part, the information is indicative of drug use among this typically heavy, drug-using population. The following statistics were determined from urinalysis that provides an estimate of recent drug use (within the past 48 hours) by detainees. Figure 4 illustrates the trend of adult male detainees testing positive to selected drugs from four long-term DUMA sites between 1999 and 2008.

Figure 4: Adult male police detainees testing positive to selected drugs, at four long-term DUMA sitesa, 1999–2008 (%)


a: Bankstown, Parramatta, East Perth, Southport

Source: Gaffney et al. 2010

In 2008, 36 percent of adult female detainees and 20 percent of adult male detainees tested positive for benzodiazepines, while cannabis continues to be the most commonly detected drug, with 48 percent of detainees testing positive in 2008 (Gaffney et al. 2010). Consistent with previous years, cocaine use remained low at the DUMA sites with only one percent of detainees testing positive in 2008 (Gaffney et al. 2010). Heroin use varied widely between DUMA sites in 2008, with as many as 48 percent of detainees tested positive for heroin use in Footscray compared with nine percent in Bankstown (Gaffney et al. 2010). In 2008, 21 percent of detainees across all sites tested positive for methamphetamines and in 2008, three percent of detainees tested positive to MDMA (Gaffney et al. 2010).

In addition to the detainees who agreed to be tested and interviewed, a number of detainees declined an interview for a variety of reasons. Police officers and some interviewers also have discretion to not conduct interviews on some detainees, primarily for safety reasons. In 2009, 4.5 percent of detainees were declined for interview due to being a security risk, two percent were considered too intoxicated and two percent were a combination of a security risk and being too intoxicated (DUMA 2010 unpublished data).

Alcohol and crime

Recent research in New South Wales estimated that police spend approximately eight percent of their time dealing with alcohol-related incidents (Donnelly et al. 2007). However, this estimate varied by region. Higher percentages of alcohol-related activity were recorded in regional areas compared with metropolitan local area commands and was affected by type of duties performed (licensing officers would predictably record more hours of alcohol-related activity than others for example; Donnelly et al. 2007). Temporal factors were also significant, with Friday and Saturday nights recording 17 to 18 percent of time spent dealing with alcohol-related activity (Donnelly et al. 2007). The 2007 DUMA annual report, which focused on detainee alcohol consumption, indicates that half of all offenders detained by police across Australia for disorder and violent offences had consumed alcohol in the 48 hours prior to their arrest (Adams et al. 2008). Furthermore, Morgan and McAtamney (2009: 2) found that

52 percent of offenders charged by police for an assault had consumed alcohol in the previous 24 hours and 26 percent reported that the consumption of alcohol had contributed to their offending. An additional four percent of offenders detained for an assault were too intoxicated to be interviewed.

The researchers concluded that overall, nearly one-third (30%) of assault charges were likely to be attributable to alcohol. In addition, consuming alcohol contributed to the offending of approximately a third of individuals detained for breaching an Apprehended Violence Order (Morgan & McAtamney 2009).

A report into alcohol and violence in South Australia (based on SAPOL data) found that in the 2008–09 reporting period, the Adelaide central business district recorded 126 assaults against police, of which 102 (81%) were alcohol related, as were 309 (77%) of cases of hindering/resisting arrest (SAPOL 2010). In addition, alcohol was involved in 459 (62%) of offences against the person, 32 (65%) of serious assaults, 269 (65%) of minor assaults, 168 (53%) non-arson property damage and 606 (76%) of disorderly behaviour (SAPOL 2010a). The proportion of offences related to alcohol is provided in Figure 5.

Figure 5: Number of alcohol use and offending in the Adelaide CBD 2008–09


Source: SA Police 2010a

Overall, the report concluded that alcohol-related violence has been increasing in South Australia, in particular in Adelaide, which has been partly attributed to the extended late-night liquor trading hours (SAPOL 2010a).

Offences against the person

Although there has been an overall downward trend in offences against the person and property in South Australia, in 2008–09 there were 871 assaults on police. Assaults on police have varied over time. In 2006–07, 862 assaults against police were recorded, while in 2007–08 the figure was 968. There has also been an overall decrease in offences against property, either reported or becoming known to police, of 8.8 percent from 2007–08 to 2008–09 (SAPOL 2009).

Mental illness

It is estimated that mental illness affects more than one in five adults in the Australian population (Andrews, Henderson & Hall 2001). Beginning in the 1960s and continuing into the 1970s, there was a dramatic shift in the treatment of mentally ill individuals from psychiatric custodial treatment and accommodation to community living and care (Clifford 2010). This deinstitutionalisation has been reflected in all countries in the Western world and saw the closure of long-stay hospitals for the mentally ill and handicapped (MacKinnon & Coleborne 2003). As a result of deinstitutionalisation in Australia, police have been increasingly confronted by the need to respond to problems involving mentally ill individuals in the community (Clifford 2010). At present, strict legal criteria for civil commitment has contributed to increased numbers of mentally ill individuals being caught up in the criminal justice system (Cooper, McLearen & Zapf 2004). In addition, an increase in the use of drugs and alcohol by individuals with mental illnesses has exacerbated the problem (Ogloff et al. 2006).

Police contact with mentally ill people

Although mental illness is a health issue, police are usually the first point of contact with mentally ill people entering the criminal justice system, particularly after business hours (Ogloff et al. 2006) when few mental health services are staffed (Clifford 2010). Encounters between police and mentally ill individuals may 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). However, in a small number of situations, these interactions can result in a fatal outcome. Dalton (1998) reports that between 1 January 1990 and 30 June 1997, 41 people were fatally shot by Australian police. One-third of these people had been diagnosed with mental illness or depression prior to shooting.

Police officers are often concerned about dealing with individuals who appear to be suffering from serious mental or emotional impairment (Kaminski, DiGiovanni & Downs 2004). This concern originates from the increased likelihood of police having to use force when a civilian is in a highly irrational state and their ability to rationalise has been affected. Studies in the United States have shown that more than half of all male arrestees in urban areas are impaired by illicit drugs or psychiatric disorders. Research conducted in North Carolina found calls for service involving ‘mentally deranged’ people were ranked the most dangerous type of call police were summoned to respond to, based on the number of assaults and injuries to officers (Hirschel, Dean & Lumb 1994). In addition, it has been suggested that attacks by mentally ill persons on police may more often result in police officer injury (Margarita 1980). However, more recently, Kaminski, DiGiovanni and Downs (2004) reported that, even though police indicated that persons with perceived impairment of judgement, mental illness, or under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol appeared more threatening and required greater effort to arrest than those who displayed intact judgment, they were actually only mildly problematic for police. In Australia, the Mental Health Workers Alliance (2004) surveyed more than 213 police officers and found that police spent up to 30 hours per week transporting mentally ill people in police vehicles. Seventy-five percent of the respondents considered themselves in danger or at risk because of this work (MHWA 2004).

Police involvement with mentally ill offenders

The rate of mental illness among offenders is between three and five times higher than those reported in the general community (Ogloff et al. 2006). More specifically, 14 percent of male prisoners and 20 percent of female prisoners admitted to having prior psychiatric admission(s) (Mullen, Holmquist & Ogloff 2003). In addition, it is speculated that ‘as the prevalence of mental illness increases so too does police involvement in dealing with such cases’ (Donohue et al. 2008: 25). In 2003, Queensland Police responded to 17,000 callouts across the state relating to mentally ill individuals; a 17 percent increase from 2001 (Office of the Public Advocate Queensland 2005). An analysis of DUMA data has shown that between 2000 and 2008, 20 percent of adult female detainees and 15 percent of male detainees reported being admitted to a psychiatric unit for at least one overnight stay (see Figure 6). Also concerning is research that found that 30 percent of males and 45 percent of females who provided information to the DUMA questionnaire could be classified as having undiagnosed mental illness (Forsythe & Gaffney forthcoming). This signifies that there could be a number of individuals detained by police who are unaware they may be suffering from a mental illness (Forsythe & Gaffney forthcoming).

Figure 6: Adult DUMA detainees who reported being admitted to a psychiatric unit for at least one overnight stay, 2000 to 2010 (%)


Source: DUMA unpublished data [computer file]

Although the crime rate is falling, policing remains a difficult and arguably increasingly difficult job. Overall, these trends, coupled with offenders’ use of alcohol and drugs and a high prevalence of mental illness among offenders, can all contribute to both the unpredictability of the policing environment and differing demands upon policing activities. Indeed, the changing nature of crime appears to affect the nature of policing, with what appears to be a focus away from low-risk property crime to higher risk violent incidents, as evidenced by increased assaults on the police. Despite these figures, it is also important to recognise that many of the activities single person patrols would conduct would exclude attendance at a scene that might pose obvious risks, such as responding to an alcohol-related assault situation. The following sections will overview many of the factors relating to single person patrols.