In police terminology, a beat is the territory and time that a police officer patrols. Beat policing is based on traditional policing (late 19th century) and utilizes the close relationship with the community members within the assigned beat to strengthen police effectiveness and encourage cooperative efforts to make a safer community. Beat police typically patrol on foot or bicycle which provides more interaction between police and community members.
Before the advent of personal radio communications, beats were organised in towns and cities to cover specific areas, usually shown on a map in the police station and given some sort of name or number. Officers reporting on duty would be allocated a beat by their sergeant and sometimes given a card indicating that the officer should be at a particular point at set times, usually half an hour, or forty-five minutes apart. The points would usually be telephone kiosks, police pillars or boxes, or perhaps public houses where it would be possible to phone the officer should he be needed to respond to an incident. The officer would remain at the point for five minutes and then patrol the area gradually making his way to the next point.
Beats in town centers would be relatively small areas but in the suburbs much larger. A shortfall in manpower would mean that one or more beats would be left un-patrolled at the discretion of the duty sergeant.
Sometime during an officer’s shift, he could expect a supervisory officer to meet him at one of the points. This ensured the beat patrol was being correctly carried out and was an opportunity to discuss problems. The supervisory officer would sign the officer or constable’s pocket book, ensuring that it was up to date.
It was expected that a constable would learn all about each beat he covered, even though they would not necessarily be the same one each shift. A new constable would usually be shown around the beats by an experienced constable who would point out important considerations. These would include vulnerable premises such as banks and post offices, perhaps showing the officer where a peephole would give a view of a safe. A constable was expected to learn where known criminals resided or resorted and which public houses might be the source of problems or keeping late hours.
The same principles extended to beats patrolled on bicycles or in motor vehicles. Even with radio communication, the patrol vehicle would be expected to visit and remain at certain points at particular times, enabling supervisors to meet up with the patrolling officer or to give a visible police presence at times when this was deemed particularly needed.
Missing a point without good reason was regarded very seriously and was often the cause of disciplinary action against an officer. Beat officers were commonly used in the 1800s.