Police Patrol and Public Alcohol Use in Anchorage

Police Patrol and Public Alcohol Use in Anchorage

Brad Myrstol

Myrstol, Brad A. (Spring 2004). "Police Patrol and Public Alcohol Use in Anchorage." Alaska Justice Forum 21(1): 1, 9-12. While questions remain concerning the causal role of alcohol use in crime, there is evidence to suggest that alcohol is at least implicated in a wide variety of crime, delinquency, and other undesirable conduct in Alaska. Less clear is the impact of alcohol on criminal justice agencies responsible for handling the problems associated with public alcohol use. This article presents preliminary findings from the Police Alcohol-related Services Study (PASS), which had as its objective an analysis of the role of alcohol involvement in police work. Among its findings: One out of every three minutes Anchorage Police Department patrol officers spend with members of the public is in the context of an alcohol-related event—more than 45 minutes per shift. Fourteen percent of all patrol shift time is devoted to alcohol-related events. Overall, this officer time may comprise expenditures of over five million dollars annually.

One out of every three minutes Anchorage Police Department patrol officers spend with members of the public is in the context of an alcohol-related event—more than 45 minutes per shift. Fourteen percent of all patrol shift time is devoted to alcohol-related events. Overall, this officer time may comprise expenditures of over five million dollars annually.

In discussions of social problems within Alaska, the topic of alcohol use often takes center stage. Alcohol is viewed by many in the state—justice professionals and laypersons alike—as the root cause of a wide range of social ills, many of which necessitate the involvement of criminal justice agencies. And while questions remain concerning the causal role of alcohol use, there is evidence to suggest that alcohol is at least implicated in a wide variety of crimes and other undesirable conduct in Alaska. (Two other recent Forum articles have looked at this issue: “Alcohol Use Among Anchorage Arrestees” by Brad Myrstol [Winter 2003] and “Forcible Rapes and Sexual Assaults in Anchorage” by André Rosay [Winter 2004].)

Less clear than the degree of alcohol involvement in crime and delinquency is its impact on criminal justice agencies responsible for handling the problems associated with public alcohol use. The information criminal justice agencies collect generally does not provide sufficient detail to allow for accurate impact estimates. Paradoxically, because alcohol use is so intimately connected to behavior brought to the attention of public authorities (particularly criminal violence), the direct influence of alcohol use alone, excluding other factors, is nearly impossible to estimate—especially for the court and correctional systems, where alcohol involvement is so ubiquitous across cases as to be nearly constant.

For police agencies, the task of measuring organizational impact is made difficult by the broad scope of their institutional mandate, which goes far beyond mere law enforcement. In the United States, state and local police respond to a wide range of problems, only a minority of which constitute actual violations of criminal law. Non-criminal situations (for example, an officer responding to a complaint about noise or an officer transporting a chronic inebriate to safe shelter) also often involve alcohol.

This article presents preliminary findings from the Police Alcohol-related Services Study (PASS) conducted by the Justice Center in January 2004. The objective of PASS was to bring the role of alcohol involvement in police work to the center of analysis by describing the nature (who, where, when and what), assessing the consequences (economic, organizational, institutional, and cultural) and investigating the causes of alcohol-related encounters and incidents experienced by the patrol division of the Anchorage Police Department (APD).

Methodology

PASS is a study of the impact alcohol consumption by the public has on one aspect of the Anchorage Police Department: patrol work. In order to make findings generalizable to all patrol in Anchorage, patrol shifts and patrol beats were selected according to a random sampling plan. Officers were not permitted to decline a PASS observer when they were selected for observation and PASS observers were randomly assigned to sampled day-shift-beat combinations to reduce the effects of any systematic bias they might introduce..

PASS Sample

PASS examined patrol work across three separate, but interconnected, levels of analysis: observation sessions (rides), events (activities and encounters) and individuals (officers and members of the public).

This discussion is a preliminary analysis of PASS data consisting of 65 rides, with more than 2,230 events. A ride is an observation session to which a PASS observer was assigned. An event is defined as any action undertaken or incident participated in by the officer observed, either self-initiated or at the direction of others. That is, event is a term used to describe what officers did while on duty during an observation session.

Table 1 and Table 2 provide a description of the temporal distribution, by time of day and day of week, of the PASS sample. Table 1 presents a comparison of the distribution across time of day for the PASS sample as designed with the sample that was actually carried out in the study—the realized sample. Examination of the distribution of observed shifts shows little difference between the sample of rides initially selected and those actually observed by the PASS research team. Moreover, the sample of observations collected for PASS closely approximates the ideal of one-third representation within each shift. Because APD deploys patrol units equally across all shifts, without an increase or decrease in the volume of patrol units according to time of day, it was important that the final sample be as evenly distributed as possible.

Table 1. Distribution of Sample Observations, by Shift Table 2. Distribution of Sample Observations, by Day of Week

Just as APD maintains a constant deployment of patrol units by shift, it also maintains a constant patrol presence each day of the week. Therefore, each day of the week should have equal proportional representation in an ideal sample of cases; that is, each day should have 14.3 percent of all observations. As with time of day, examination of the distribution of observations across day of week suggests that the sampling design was successful in producing a representative sample in terms of the day of week observations took place (Table 2). There is no evidence that observations were overly concentrated on any particular day in comparison to all the rest. What differences were detected in the distribution failed to meet the threshold for statistical significance.

Finally, Table 3 displays information on the geographic distribution of the PASS sample. Preliminary evidence suggests that the sample attrition experienced during the study was not evenly distributed across patrol districts. In particular, the Central patrol district is somewhat over-represented in the sample, and the North and South districts are under-represented. The percentage of PASS observations which occurred in the East and West districts was not appreciably different from their overall presence within APD patrol. The consequence of this outcome is that to the extent that alcohol-related events are more likely to occur in the North and South districts, the sample may underestimate the impact of public alcohol consumption on Anchorage police patrol work. Conversely, if the Central district is more likely to produce alcohol-related events, then these data may exaggerate the impact of alcohol on patrol work in Anchorage.

Table 3. Comparison of Distributions: APD Beat Districts vs. PASS Designed Sample vs. PASS Realized Sample

To conclude, preliminary analysis of the temporal and spatial distribution of PASS observations suggests the sampling design was successful in producing a representative sample of patrol observations in Anchorage which was not unduly biased in terms of when or where they took place.

Basic Findings

Definitions

PASS observers coded alcohol involvement in activities any time an activity engaged in by the observed officer was linked to alcohol use by a member of the public in some way. Some examples of the most common alcohol-related activities observed during the study were:

  • An officer completing paperwork for an alcohol-involved incident
  • An officer en-route to an alcohol-involved incident
  • An officer visiting a court or magistrate in connection with an alcohol-related incident

For encounters, PASS observers coded alcohol involvement if there was directly observable evidence that a person with whom the observed officer interacted in the encounter had been drinking:

  • Member of public in possession of alcohol;
  • Admission of alcohol use by member of public;
  • Corroboration of alcohol use by third party;
  • Detectable odor of alcohol emanated from member of the public (breath; clothing);
  • Behavioral indicators (difficulty walking; slurred speech); and
  • Objective measures of alcohol use (field sobriety test; breathalyzer).

If any of these indicators were present, PASS observers recorded the encounter as alcohol-related. (Observers did not record encounters in which alcohol may have been present but was incidental—such as in robbery from a cash register in a liquor store.)

Alcohol Involvement in Patrol Work: Percentage of Discrete Events

Roughly one of every seven events experienced by an APD patrol officer is connected to public alcohol consumption in some way. Figure 1 provides a visual depiction of the prevalence of alcohol involvement in police patrol in the Municipality of Anchorage. Of the 2,236 events observed for PASS, 310 (13.9%) were determined to be alcohol-related. How does this 13.9 percent break out across the two event dimensions of activity and encounter? Figures 2 and 3 answer this question.

Figure 1. Total Alcohol-Related Events Observed
Figure 2. Activities Observed: Alcohol-Related Figure 3. Encounters Observed: Alcohol-Related

When the totality of patrol activities was examined, those which were connected to alcohol use by a member of the public in any way were found to comprise only a small minority. Of the 1,820 activities documented by PASS researchers, 11 percent (n = 201) were found to be alcohol-related. Alcohol involvement was more prevalent in police-citizen encounters than in activities, although alcohol-related encounters still represented a relatively small proportion of all encounters. Of the 416 police-citizen encounters observed over the course of the study, 26 percent (n=109) were determined to be alcohol-related.

Alcohol Involvement in Patrol Work: Time Spent on Alcohol-related Events

In order to provide a more complete assessment of the impact of public alcohol use, PASS observers also documented officer time usage for every observation session. Observers were required to record the beginning and end time for every event (activities and encounters), for each shift. PASS researchers observed 65 10-hour shifts over the course of the study, for a total of approximately 650 hours (39,000 minutes). (This total is only a close approximation because some shifts ended early. At the time of writing a precise figure of time lost to early shift termination was not available.)

Preliminary time analyses were conducted across two dimensions. The first dimension examined was the total amount of time officers spent on alcohol-related activities as a percentage of total observed shift time (see Figures 4, 5 and 6). The second dimension examined was the amount of time APD patrol officers spent on alcohol-related activities as a percentage of total event (activity v. encounter) time (see Figures 7 and 8). PASS researchers observed more than 430 hours (25,996 minutes) of miscellaneous officer activity (all non-encounter events), and over 150 hours (9,119 minutes) of encounters between APD patrol officers and members of the public. (Because all of the PASS data were not fully compiled at the time of this writing, the calculations presented in Figures 4, 5 and 6 are based on a denominator of 39,000 minutes, thereby making these alcohol-related percentages conservative estimates.)

There were a total of 310 alcohol-related events during the 28-day study period, constituting about 92 hours (5,547 minutes) of direct observation. These alcohol-related activities and encounters amounted to about one-seventh (14.2%) of the total time patrol officers were on shift.

Figure 4. Total Time Spent on Alcohol-Related Events, as a Function of Total Shift Minutes Figure 5. Total Time Spent on Alcohol-Related Activities, as a Function of Total Shift Minutes
Figure 6. Total Time Spent on Alcohol-Related Encounters, as a Function of Total Shift Time

Time Spent on Alcohol-related Activities

When only the amount of time officers dedicated to alcohol-related activities is viewed as a percentage of total observed shift time, the degree of alcohol involvement is significantly less than when both activities and encounters are combined. The percentage of alcohol-related involvement decreases from 14.2 percent (Figure 4) to 6.3 percent (Figure 5).

Even when alcohol-related activities are examined in the context of other activities, rather than all events, the total of time spent on them fails to reach 10 percent. Using only total activity time as the percentage base, rather than total shift time, the percentage of alcohol involvement increases by about 3 points to 9.4 percent (see Figure 7).

Time Spent on Alcohol-related Encounters

APD patrol officers spent about 25 percent more time dealing with alcohol-related encounters (51.2 hours; 3,073 minutes) than they did attending to alcohol-related activities (40.8 hours; 2,448 minutes). Even so, this still represents less than 8 percent of all observed shift time during the study period (see Figure 6). But, when the focus is narrowed, the picture of alcohol involvement changes dramatically. Using only the total time spent on encounters as the percentage base, the amount of time spent on alcohol increases to just over 30 percent (see Figure 8). In concrete terms, this means that alcohol will be implicated in one of every three minutes patrol officers spend with the public.

Figure 7. Total Time Spent on Alcohol-Related Activities, as a Function of Total Activity Time Figure 8. Total Time Spent on Alcohol-Related Encounters, as a Funcion of Total Encounter Time

Estimating the Costs of Public Alcohol Use

It was thought that PASS’s detailed accounting of the time patrol officers spent performing alcohol-related duties might facilitate an estimate of the financial impact of such incidents on the Anchorage Police Department. As an example, since 14.2 percent of all patrol officer time is dedicated to alcohol-related events (see Figure 4), the simplest cost estimate to produce is to calculate 14.2 percent of all patrol expenditures. Combining PASS time-use data with current budget estimates provided by the APD produces an estimate of annual alcohol-related budget expenditures of approximately $5.2 million. This figure is based on recent budget estimates provided by the Anchorage Police Department showing costs of $91 per hour each to maintain 202 line-level patrol officers (excluding sergeants and lieutenants) on the street, and it includes in-service training, supervision, retirement, and support staff costs, as well as all capital expenditures (patrol cars, communication equipment, weaponry, and so on) to place an officer in the field. The estimate assumes an annual work year of 2,000 hours per employee.

Several caveats are in order concerning this estimate. It may be useful to place this estimate in context to assess its significance. While $5.2 million is certainly a large sum of money, it is less than 10 percent of the 2004 budget proposed by the Anchorage Police Department (available on-line at http://www.muni.org/iceimages/OMB/21-Police.pdf). Second, the estimate represents the costs associated with alcohol-related events, not caused by them. To assert police activity in response to an incident was the result of alcohol use, it would also be necessary to show that the event would not have occurred but for the use of alcohol by an involved party. For events which were solely attributable to alcohol use (for example, transport of an inebriate to shelter or a liquor law violation) this may be possible, but for most alcohol-related events to which police are summoned, it is simply not possible to say with certainty that the incident would not have occurred without the influence of alcohol. Third, not only is it rare to be able to conclude that police activity is the result of public alcohol use, it is virtually impossible in both theory and practice to isolate the costs attributable to alcohol, even if other contributory factors can be identified. Take, for instance, a call involving violence between intimates where one person was drunk, and the other high on cocaine. What costs could be attributed to alcohol? What about cocaine? Are costs also attributed to anger? Fourth and finally, it must be realized that the time and effort expended by patrol officers to handle alcohol-related cases cannot be translated into cost savings even if they were never to handle another alcohol-related call. The money would still be spent because the field deployment of officers is not reduced, even when demand wanes. A full complement of patrol officers is maintained 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year.

A related but somewhat different point is recognition of costs incurred by police that cannot be reduced to a dollar figure. The first might be termed a “value-rational” cost and it relates to the reduced opportunities for police to do other tasks. Because time is a zero-sum entity, time spent policing public alcohol consumption is lost to other priority activities. A second set of costs difficult to put a dollar figure on is the subjective human impact associated with handling alcohol-related events. Like everyone else, patrol officers are influenced by the experiences they encounter while on the job. Patrol officers’ attitudes, perceptions, beliefs and values are shaped by, among other things, their experiences and interactions working the street.

Discussion

Data from the Police Alcohol-related Services Study (PASS) suggest that alcohol-related events constitute a relatively small proportion of what patrol officers do over the course of a typical shift. Alcohol was found to be involved in about 14 percent of all events, and approximately 14 percent of all shift time is dedicated to alcohol-related events.

Despite the low prevalence of alcohol involvement in patrol work within Anchorage, however, important time-allotment patterns emerge between police-citizen encounters and other patrol officer activities. First, these data show that roughly one out of every four police-public encounters will be alcohol-related (see Figure 3). When applied to an average of 6 police-citizen encounters per officer per shift (416 encounters / 65 rides), an APD patrol officer will come into direct contact with a member of the public who has been drinking between one and two times every shift. Second, on average, one out of every three minutes officers spend with members of the public will be in the context of an alcohol-related incident (see Figure 8). PASS data show that patrol officers spend approximately 140 minutes per day in contact with members of the public (9,119 minutes / 65 rides), for a total of more than 45 minutes per shift in direct contact with people who have been drinking. Thus, while the absolute prevalence of alcohol involvement in patrol work is quite low, it is certainly not inconsequential.

While they are difficult to estimate precisely, the costs—monetary, opportunity, social-psychological—in dealing with public alcohol consumption incurred by the Anchorage Police Department are substantial.

Future research by the author will examine the impact this degree of interaction with inebriated persons has on officers’ attitudes, perceptions and behavior in contacts with members of the public.

Brad Myrstol is a research associate with the Justice Center.