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DOING EVERYTHING WITH NOTHING


January 6, 2016
By Chris D. Lewis

1065 words – MR

DOING EVERYTHING WITH NOTHING

Communities need to understand the cost of modern policing

by Chris Lewis

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Municipalities, provinces and states across North America have grown increasingly concerned about rising policing costs. Facing little to no increase in local tax revenues, they have often gone from a “do more with less” model to a “do everything with nothing” reality.

Increasing salaries and rising costs for technology, vehicles and fuel have caused police and political leaders to closely examine how to get the best bang for their dwindling dollar through a variety of service delivery model options.

Most police chiefs and boards have wrestled with this dilemma for at least 10 years, meeting to share ideas and best practices and consulting with academics and policing experts across jurisdictions to search for valid solutions. It has been a difficult process at a time when reported crime has actually dropped in a number of categories.

The falling crime rate argument is a bit of a misnomer. Crime is much more complex to investigate now than it was 30 years ago. In 2016 police don’t only have to prove who committed the crime but also show that every other person in the free world didn’t do it. Every interview is recorded and transcribed and when charges are laid, terabytes of disclosure are prepared under very tight timelines.

The CSI world we live in also requires police to examine crime scenes in ways unimagined decades ago, locating and processing digital information in storage devices like tablets, phones and computers. Search warrant and production order processes are very complex. Cases that would have been staffed by only a handful of members years ago now often require hundreds of officers.

Falling crime rates don’t happen by waving a magic wand but through an increased focus on prevention programs, which take time, people and funding. It is hugely cheaper to prevent crimes than it is to respond, investigate, prosecute and incarcerate, but the more important benefit is the reduction in victimization. Preventing vulnerable people from being exploited, harmed or robbed is always the goal.

Current prevention models including crime abatement strategies and the “community mobilization” concept – which brings police, various social service agencies, educators and community groups together to mitigate societal conditions that lead to crime – are having significant impacts. That work can’t be stopped on a dime however, or crime rates will grow rather than diminish.

New and demanding crimes – cyber-crime through organized crime groups that know no borders; child exploitation and Internet bullying; and radicalization and terrorist attacks in western societies – are all resource intensive and costly to address, to say the least.

Salaries encompass the vast majority of most police budgets. In days gone by many agencies didn’t have rigorous staffing methodologies, just established complements that had existed for many years, combined with shift rosters that had consistent staff numbers working regardless of the day or time of the week. Sound minds know that this cannot continue and much work is underway at many levels to make significant change, however it is most often a very difficult collective bargaining issue.

Technological solutions also come with costs. Predictive policing (also known as intelligence-based or data-driven policing); impact shift scheduling and the related staffing requirements; focusing patrols and enforcement efforts to have the maximum benefit – all are recent enhancements to what used to be largely “best guess policing.” Having the right people in the right places and doing the right things to optimize policing energy are modern day musts.

Police need to stop doing some things they once did with pride. “No call to small” used to work wonderfully but sadly is now an unaffordable luxury. Citizen self-reporting of more minor incidents through the Internet, with telephone follow-up by police personnel, is quickly becoming the norm, as it should be.

Civilianization was not the panacea some experts claimed it would be. Police leaders need to have the best people in each role, and yes, some duties are best carried out by experts who are not cops – but the salary differential is not significant.

There was a time when only 10 per cent of police employees were civilians, as we then trained cops to do things others could handle. Thankfully that has changed to 25 to 30 per cent civilian staff in most cases. Civilian accountants, lab techs, IT personnel, administrators and communication centre staff are vital parts of the overall policing team. Bear in mind that they are most often locked into those areas of expertise for an entire career while watching their officer colleagues move around between different assignments and promotional opportunities.

Most importantly, police services still need a critical mass of armed officers to provide patrols and respond to a multitude of calls. Even in a large force, it is virtually impossible to send armed officers to some calls and unarmed officers to others, as some suggest. Many police services and OPP detachments only have a handful of staff working at any given time.

The generalist constable has to be ready to respond to a variety of events, and yes the reality is that some of them may really not require a fully trained and armed police officer, but then again they might – and the next call probably will.

Police officers are well paid, as they should be. We want the best of the best doing this work, not those that will simply fill a uniform and carry a gun at any price. Ontario’s police officers are all within a very tight salary range. Those salaries are challenging to control as associations try to leap-frog over recently signed contracts from other agencies.

Police and community leaders need to continue to lead change before it leads them. The few that don’t want to should change careers. Police associations must accept that there is no new money out there and times are tough for everyone. Raises may not be as forthcoming as they would like.

Shift schedules need to be based on the needs of the community, not the individual officer. At the same time, the public needs to know that much is being done to keep costs under control while still preventing crime and keeping people and their property safe.

None of this is easy and it cannot all happen at the flip of a switch. Laying off police officers and auctioning off police cars isn’t the answer.

BIO