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The influential policing policy research finding that “…a patrolling policeman in London could expect to pass within 100 yards of a burglary in progress, roughly once every eight years but not necessarily catch the burglar or even realise that the crime was taking place” is a braced super myth.

Picture commissioned by Sutton from the artist Marcus Jones. Marcus can be contacted via his online gallery website http://marcusjones.daportfolio.comUsed only with express written permission

Randomly Patrolling Zombie Cops

The Problem of Zombie Cops in Voodoo Criminology: Arresting the Police Patrol 100 Yard Myth

Authors: Mike Sutton and Philip Hodgson

First author:

Dr Mike Sutton

Reader in Criminology

Nottingham Trent University


Second author: Dr Philip Hodgson

Senior Lecturer in Criminology

Nottingham Trent University



The authors are particularly grateful to Professor Simon Holdaway of Nottingham Trent University and Sheffield University for his expert knowledge, unswerving support and critical guidance.

*This article is based upon a paper presented at the New National Deviancy Conference (2011) in York, England, by Sutton, Hodgson and Hamilton entitled: The Problem of Zombie Cops in Voodoo Criminology. The article, as it is published here, is currently undergoing open peer review by academic experts, front line police officers and police executives for an international criminology journal (03.07.2012).


The widely held criminological ‘knowledge’ that foot patrol beat policing is ineffective at either arresting offenders or reducing crime is substantially supported by research conducted by Clarke and Hough (1984), which makes the claim that: ‘…a patrolling policeman in London could expect to pass within 100 yards of a burglary in progress, roughly once every eight years but not necessarily catch the burglar or even realise that the crime was taking place.’

This claim has been repeated, apparently unquestioningly, as though it is based upon veracious empirical research evidence from policing research in the field, in at least 45 publications, which include scholarly books, peer reviewed journal articles, research reports and police magazines. Clarke’s and Hough’s claim remains influential to the extent that it is effectively treated as ‘criminological commonsense’. In fact, the claim is based upon a pencil and paper mathematical exercise involving three questionable premises. Two of these are disclosed and they are accompanied by a third, which we believe a reader might reasonably infer to be implicit. In this paper, we question all three assumptions and therefore question the veracity of its widespread use in supporting the accepted criminological wisdom about the predestined ineffectiveness of routine police foot patrol.


This paper challenges the veracity of a widely cited claim that is frequently used to support arguments that foot patrol beat policing is inherently ineffective at either arresting offenders or reducing crime. It is important to assert at the outset that the main aim of this paper is not to question the body of published empirical research into the effectiveness of beat patrol policing, nor is it to focus in detail upon what beat patrol policing actually involves. Rather, it is to reveal the extent to which a claim made about the effectiveness of beat policing, which is not based upon empirical evidence but based upon unrealistic premises, has become a pervasive, pathological myth that has undoubtedly influenced the published work of many influential academics who appear to believe that it is based upon empirical evidence.

The claim, which was first made in a Home Office research study into the effectiveness of beat policing (Clarke and Hough 1984: 7) is that:

‘…a patrolling policeman in London could expect to pass within 100 yards of a burglary in progress, roughly once every eight years but not necessarily catch the burglar or even realise that the crime was taking place.’

In Britain, the USA and Canada policing policy makers, politicians, journalists and many academics have repeated the claim to the letter over the past 28 years, and it continues to be cited as ‘evidence based research’ in order to support arguments against both police and public demands for resources to be made available for more police officers to be assigned to patrol the streets, most recently by Wilson (2011a):

‘The usual "common sense" cry here is that more patrolling police officers would both prevent burglary and help the detection rate to rise. Yet a Home Office study into the effectiveness of patrolling, conducted in the early 1980s, discovered that a bobby on the beat in London was likely to pass within 100 yards of a burglary in progress once every eight years. The same study went on to acknowledge that the patrolling officer would not necessarily realise that the burglary was taking place, or have much chance of catching the culprit.’

The publications referenced in Table 1 indicate widespread acceptance of the claim. We have verified 45 sources that cite and unquestioningly quote the myth as based upon research evidence. None of these 45 publications criticise this claim made by Clarke and Hough (1984), nor do they mention its premises.

Table 1 includes introductory criminology textbooks (e.g. Carrabine et al 2009); policing textbooks (e.g. Reiner 2010); edited collections of contributions by leading authors in their field (e.g. Young 1992); and peer-reviewed scholarly papers (e.g. Crawford 2003). Those familiar with the claim might be surprised to learn that it is not based on empirical policing research conducted in the field, but upon a pen and paper mathematical exercise.

In this paper we examine the evidence upon which the claim is based. We then discuss our findings on the extent of belief in it. Finally, we make some highly tentative recommendations, simply by way of a call for further research, to seek to discover more about the reasons for and implications of what might be called ‘criminological myths’.

The Underlying Premises of the Claim

Clarke and Hough’s (1984) claim is based upon three key underlying premises, two of which are explained in their report and a third, which appears to be implicit. Firstly, they disclose in a footnote that they assume that police officers on the beat walk at a fixed uniform speed of three miles per hour on foot beats that each contain exactly 1,500 households, eight hours a day, 365 days a year (Premise A). Accordingly, therefore, if beat policing is effective it is either because, or in spite of the fact that, contrary to what the criminological literature reveals (e.g. Klinger 1997; Centre for Social Justice 2009), police officers patrol identical beats like robots and are always patrolling the streets when on duty. The second premise is that crime is equally distributed so that exactly one in 10 properties are burgled at random per year throughout the whole of London (Premise B), Accordingly, therefore, if beat patrol policing can reduce crime it will be because of, or in spite of the fact that, contrary to what the criminological literature reveals (e.g. Burgess 1925; Baldwin and Bottoms 1976; Pease 1998, Weisburd and Braga 2006), crime is evenly distributed. The last, apparently implicit assumption (Premise C) is that police officers do not interpret the world around them. They do not make choices on the basis of a host of reasons for patrolling this or that street, or giving attention to this or that property, person or object. According to Clarke and Hough’s claim, police officers are passive not active. And so it necessarily follows that, if beat patrol policing can reduce crime, it will be because of, or else in spite of the fact that, contrary to what the wider policing literature actually reveals (e.g. Goldstein 1960; Reiner 1985, Loftus 2009), police officers patrol like unseeing and unhearing zombies unable to discriminate between places, times, people and many other features of the world around them. Put another way, this inferred premise is that beat policing involves no responsive, rational or even conscious ‘action’ (Beccaria 1764).

Firstly, Premise A is obviously false because it does not resemble what foot officers do when they patrol public areas. Even in the days before hand-held two-way radio transmitters were in regular use beat police officers did not patrol randomly. Up until the 1960’s, for example, they patrolled between a series of contact points at pre-set times (Chatterton 1979), which, although very imperfect, served as a means for communication and officer supervision (Burrows et al 1988). Moreover, officers on beat patrol before the 1960’s may not have been particularly effective at catching offenders red handed (Weatheritt 1986), but they were able to provide at least a notional preventative function. This is because their visibility on the street meant the area was receiving routine police attendance, which would have come with at least some increased risk of detection for the careless and for the unlucky offender. Furthermore, these patrol officers could respond to crime related calls for help, and gather criminal intelligence for immediate or future use. Clarke and Hough’s calculations, based as they are on Premise A, are patently false whenever directly applied to today’s officers, who spend on average of no more than 1 per cent of their working time on foot patrol (Centre for Social Justice 2009). Secondly, Premise B is obviously false because research from the time of Burgess (1925) has shown how crime is concentrated in particular geographic locations. In fact, all environmental criminology to date shows (Newburn 2007: 589) that: ‘One thing that is now well established is that crime is not evenly distributed geographically’.

Finally, Premise C is obviously false because it is a fundamental point that all policing requires discretion. Studies of the police occupational culture reveal that around the time the claim was first published the majority of officers were recruited from skilled working class backgrounds (Caine, 1973; Reiner 1982) and practised a ‘craft’ of policing rather than complying slavishly to rules about where and how they should patrol their beats (Skolnick 1966). These officers relied upon then, as they do today, a considerable degree of personal discretion and reflective practice (Reiner 1985; Loftus 2009), that at even at the very most basic level is of a similar kind to that portrayed by The British Policeman (1959). Policing allows officers discretion to enforce the law and to implement policy, which, in turn, has created a context within which the occupational culture has flourished (Cain 1973; Manning 1977; Holdaway 1983; Loftus 2009).

In sum, the three distinct premises that underpin Clarke and Hough’s claim are challenged and in our view negated by research about crime and policing that was current at the time they published their report.

The Life and Evolution of the Claim

The list of publications in Table 1 shows the earliest date we found Clarke and Hough’s claim first cited was in a chapter entitled: ‘Law order and the state of the left’, where assertions about the influential importance of Clarke and Hough’s review of policing research, and particularly their claim, are made by Gilroy and Sim (1987: 93):

‘The authors found that there was no evidence that either more patrol cars or officers on the beat could reduce crime. In fact, given the present rate of burglaries, the average officer patrolling on foot in London would expect to pass within 100 yards of a burglary once every 8 years. Significantly, they also indicated this kind of research had influenced the thinking of senior police officers.’

- Readers please note: -

If you would like to read this entire article, it is available to read immediately, and totally free of charge, on the duel open access, peer reviewed Internet Journal of Criminology. Just click this link :

Postscript 03 July 2012

We would like to thank the several thousand readers who have read this article and in particular those line police officers who contacted us directly by email to let us know the impact of this policing myth on their thinking and their work.

This preliminary and revolutionary peer-to-peer publishing process on Best Thinking has been extremely beneficial and informative for policy oriented knowledge progression.

Mike Sutton and Phil Hodgson 2013


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About the Author 

Mike Sutton
Dr Mike Sutton is the author of 'Nullius in Verba: Darwin's greatest secret'.

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