August 19th, 2017

Priorities must change for officers to best serve public

By Yoos, Cam on March 20, 2017.

Doing more with the same – or less – is a reality for law enforcement around the world. The economic collapse of 2008 forced our colleagues south of the border to revisit their policing strategies to ensure they were efficient and fiscally responsible, but efforts varied based on regional economics and politics.

Long before 2008, this discussion was already happening in the U.K. There, the urgency was so pronounced the national Police Reform Act was passed in 2002. The same discussion has been happening in Canada for close to a decade but our experience was generally similar to the U.S. Regional politics, and moreso economics, have been a variable in the equation. That was very evident to me when I arrived in Alberta on the cusp of the biggest oil collapse in at least a generation. The urgency for reform that I had seen elsewhere in Canada was absent in Alberta. It was slowed by the boom and a belief that any downturn would be short lived.

Police are no longer the sacred cows of municipal budgets like they once were. We must continually assess what we are doing and be willing to let go of things from the past that are no longer productive. As a Service we are committed to innovation and finding more efficient ways of doing business that not only continue to give taxpayers bang for their buck, but emphasize the protection of life, public safety and property. We have already introduced the early stages of evidence-based policing in which we will use real data to help determine how we deploy officers.

Our first priority will always be deploying officers where an immediate response is necessary for personal safety or where there is an immediate investigative need – a crime in progress. That won’t change. But our resources are finite. In an ideal world there would be a police officer on every corner, but that’s not reality. Over the years our capacity has been significantly impacted by a number of factors from a steady increase in calls for service and increasingly complex, sophisticated and time-consuming investigations to non-policing responsibilities being downloaded on officers and spin-off crime and disorder from chronic social issues such as mental health problems, substance abuse and addictions.

Add to that the rapid growth of the city and half the population being split on either side of the coulees. To put it gently, something’s gotta give.

Other jurisdictions are acknowledging our fiscal responsibility to the public and revisiting how police respond. In the U.S., the City of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania went through a similar exercise in the fall of 2016 when it reassessed what calls really required an officer to attend. They developed a list of 14 types of calls that police commanders had an ability to decline to have an officer attend in person. The reports would be taken by telephone.

In looking at the Pittsburgh list, some calls were crimes against persons, so I don’t necessarily agree with all of the calls on their list, but I fully acknowledge their dynamics and violence rate is very different than ours. I do applaud the spirit of the exercise and their courage to change.

Closer to home the Toronto Police Service garnered national attention at the end of 2015 when KPMG provided several recommendations on how to become more efficient. The Sault Ste. Marie Police Service went through a similar exercise with KPMG. A common theme in both reports was that a fully trained, well-experienced, police officer is not required to attend for every call.

Other agencies are better equipped to respond to different calls. The data showed seven of 10 calls did not require a fully trained police officer. The economic environment and pressure on police has been present a lot longer in Ontario so they have systems in place that make some of the recommendations easier to move on, but the message is clear.

Similarly, the 2007 Brown Report on the Reform of the RCMP provided recommendations on how they could re-tool. Some of those recommendations should have echoed with police across the country. One that really resonated with me and many other police leaders is Brown’s observation that the police cannot be everything to everybody and solve every problem. Decades of this mindset have allowed the police to become society’s dumping ground for problems and the police are pulled in too many directions that are not ours.

LPS recognized it was evident that we had to change locally. It was common to have 20-30 calls in pending (waiting for an officer to be available) any day. That led to citizens waiting hours, sometimes over 24 hours, to hear back from the police. We recognized this is not acceptable and began to retool to provide a better and more efficient response.

Late last fall we began an Alternative Response Management (ARM) pilot project to provide enhanced options for the public to report non-emergency incidents, help police more effectively triage calls to determine an appropriate response and more efficiently manage calls for service.

After a trial period where approximately 300 of 1,000 calls for service were successfully managed through the ARM process and a well-received presentation to the Police Commission last month, the program is now being officially implemented.

The ARM project complements our Online Reporting initiative that’s been in place for a number of years and provides citizens with the ability to report certain crimes that do not require an immediate police response. Reports can be filed from any device with internet access and upon completion, a police report with a case number is provided. The incident is then reviewed by staff and appropriate followup initiated as required. ARM adds to this already effective alternative by diverting certain lower-priority calls and non-emergencies for review instead of automatically dispatching an officer. It’s basically an added level of triage to the call prioritization process that has always been in place.

That doesn’t mean we don’t want people to file reports – quite the contrary. We do! We need that information as we move toward evidence-based policing. We encourage reporting of all crime in the city – no matter how trivial or minor it may seem – because once a report is received it goes into our reporting protocols which helps us identify patterns and deploy resources where they are needed the most. When you call the City’s Public Safety Communications Centre, you will be asked a number of questions – this is not new, and important in helping us to determine the priority of your call and how best to respond.

If your report meets the ARM criteria it will be forwarded to an officer for review and follow-up as possible. Depending on the circumstances another officer may be assigned to investigate or we may need to contact you for further information. This differs from past practice in that an officer will not automatically be physically dispatched to attend.

As only reports of a minor nature – where there are no known suspects or evidence – will go to the ARM process, all cases where there are no reasonable avenues of investigation will be retained for information purposes but operationally concluded. If any new information or evidence comes to light that would warrant further investigation, the matter will be re-opened. In cases where follow-up is requested from the complainant but not provided to police, the matter will also be concluded.

By adding this extra layer of triage, having a police officer review the reports to ensure appropriate response and follow-up but not automatically dispatching someone to minor calls where there is no reasonable avenue of investigation, we are able to maintain service levels to the community while maximizing officer time to respond to more urgent calls and conduct more proactive policing initiatives.

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One Response to “Priorities must change for officers to best serve public”

  1. old school says:

    Interesting article that says very little.I totaly agree something should change ,however
    focus has to change and it obviously won’t.
    10 years ago we had property stolen ,attitude of police was indifference.Never here any thing
    and of course property ins not recovered. 3 years ago and 2 years ago same thing .Seems like catch phrase
    is “file a report and you can go to your insurance “. Again. I would like my stuff back.
    If I happen to neglectputting seat belt on suddenly lots of attention from police.
    Is it just about revenue generation?? Too bad real crime is not treated a serious.
    Just my experience. If you want to change “priorities “that may be a place to consider!!

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