Police Performance Up

Commentary, Frontier Centre, Manitoba, Policing, Uncategorized, Winnipeg (historic)

In the mix of elements that might generate recovery in Winnipeg’s troubled core, a necessary, if not sufficient condition is effective policing. The Winnipeg Police Service’s record of resolving crimes shows slight improvement, but the force still under performs when compared to similar communities. Whether the organizational shuffle now underway will change that remains to be seen.

First, the numbers. In 1998, Winnipeg spent $168 per citizen to fund 182 officers per 100,000 citizens. The police resolved – meaning that offenders were charged and/or convicted – 16% of property crimes and 61% of violent ones, for a weighted average of 25%. The data for 2000 indicate a cost per capita at $181, with fewer officers, 176 for 100,000 people, and a clearance rate at 30%, 18% for property crimes and 70% for violent ones. In two years, the Winnipeg Police Service improved its performance, solving more crimes with fewer personnel and only marginally more resources.

This improvement is more remarkable because the crime rate increased over the same period. In 1999, the number of charged offences stood at 9,763, but in 2,000 rose to 10,377. However, this praise has to be tempered with Winnipeg’s standing compared to other cities. In 2000, our Police Service ranked fourth among thirteen in terms of police strength and sixth in crime clearance, but our crime rate was near the bottom of the list, at ninth position (see www.fcpp.org for the full inter-city performance comparison).

The men in blue accomplished more with less, although they still performed below the Canadian average. The cities closest to Winnipeg both geographically and demographically did better. In 2000, the clearance rate in Thunder Bay hit 50%, and Regina and Saskatoon’s rates stood at 37% and 39%. The Winnipeg police effectiveness rose, but so did that of their counterparts elsewhere.

One factor that depresses the relative performance of our constabulary has to do with deployment issues. Winnipeg still has high numbers assigned to deskwork, and Canada’s most rigid two-officer police car policy continues to bleed away front-line manpower. Some is attributable to our politicians’ natural bias towards optics, instead of effectiveness. Officers regularly make trips to civic facilities — and now, no doubt, restaurants — to enforce ever more onerous no-smoking bylaws.

Our rigorous adherence to zero tolerance for domestic abuse also depletes resources from traditional crime fighting. In the last ten years, police responses to family violence rose 150%, from 9,000 in 1993 to 14,600 in 2000, with nearly 3,700 people a year arrested. Granted, getting bopped on the head is every bit as bad for the victim whether the perpetrator is a stranger or an estranged friend. The point is, before the federal rules on domestic violence were redrafted in 1983, officers used their personal discretion in deciding whether an incident warranted an arrest. Asking the police to act as social workers, and then requiring them to abandon their judgment with a zero tolerance, means overloading the system with nuisance cases.

Whether the vaunted overhaul of the Winnipeg Police Service’s lines of command will improve the situation is moot. The reorganization is touted as necessary to fight higher levels of “gang violence”. That makes nice tabloid headlines, but how much these gangs actually affect safety on Winnipeg’s streets is a wild guess. Exchange District business workers sometimes engage in gallows humour, to the effect that a biker gang tattoo parlour on Albert Street might actually reduce the local crime rate. The bikers might dissuade the winos, panhandlers, thieves and graffiti vandals who infest our downtown, more so than licit enforcers, mostly significant by their absence.

Last year, at a meeting to establish citizen street patrols in Winnipeg’s west end, a community relations officer assured the packed house that a foot patrol served the neighbourhood. “Who is he,” shouted one disgruntled chap, “the invisible man?” No one had actually seen a foot officer. Our effective bicycle patrols reinforce the argument. Community policing shouldn’t translate into expensive offices open during banking hours. One worthy element in the current overhaul, for instance, will give us detective shifts on the weekend for the first time, although they will only operate from 6:00 a.m. until 9:00 p.m., just when the fun is starting.

American sociologist James Q. Wilson said it all in his seminal 1982 study, Broken Windows: “What foot-patrol officers did was to elevate, to the extent they could, the level of public order in these neighbourhoods.” Rigorous enforcement of even petty laws on the street restores that order. Reorganize until the cows come home, the Winnipeg Police Service will not supercharge its performance until it moves out from behind desks and the dashes of patrol cars to attack crime where it exists, when it happens.

The indicators are improving. They will shoot up with real community policing. When the core area streets become unsafe for the criminal few, the peaceful majority has a chance to retake them.

Mayoral hopeful Garth Steek says he will make public safety the number one issue in next fall’s campaign. His solution? To spend more money. The numbers seem to indicate a need to spend existing resources more wisely.