Try Smarter Policing Instead

Commentary, Policing, Frontier Centre

In 2004, Winnipeg is well on the way to again reporting the highest homicide rate among the nine largest Canadian cities. Last year, Winnipeg Police Chief Jack Ewatski asked City Council for 44 more personnel and was turned down. Despite the crime uptick, if he asks again, the answer should remain “no,” at least until he does more to improve his force’s performance.

Although the Winnipeg Police Service registered a tiny increase in the crime clearance rate – from solving 30% of reported crimes in 2002 to 31% in 2003 – the movement is glacial, according to the latest Frontier Centre Charticle. It compares Winnipeg’s police effectiveness with other cities and shows once more that the force already has comparatively more personnel and resources than nearby jurisdictions with much higher clearance rates.

How can they do better? More direct, incentive-based methods could tie resource allocation to results. A few years ago the City of Orange, California, near Los Angeles, attacked high rates of burglary, robbery, rape and auto theft by linking pay increases to reductions in these crimes. For every three-point reduction, the police received a one-percent pay raise. In the first seven months of the program, incidence in these selected categories fell by 17.6%. Rates for other crimes held steady, proof the police did not merely play a shell game to capture these rewards.

Is there any reason to believe that the police in Thunder Bay, Ontario, are any smarter or better trained than ours? Of course not. Yet they achieve clearance rates (averaged for major and minor crimes) of 49%, according to the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics. All other Prairie cities beat out Winnipeg by wide margins. City Hall should consider extra resources only if the success rate goes up.

Nor are incentives the only way to spur police productivity. The spectacular drop in New York City’s crime rate during the 1990s is often wholly attributed to the aging of baby boomers. Better policing methods are more likely the reason. Then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani pushed that city’s crime-fighters into adopting the “broken windows” philosophy, which dictates that zero tolerance of petty infractions like panhandling, street vandalism and prostitution, not to mention annoying squeegee-wielding vagrants, leads to neighbourhoods that are safer from major crime. A drive down Higgins Avenue or through Winnipeg’s west end provides ample demonstration of an opposite, failed approach.

The NYPD coupled the rigorous enforcement of social rules with a pioneering use of information technology in manpower decisions. A system called COMSTAT – short for “computer comparison statistics” – allows the police to identify the city blocks most prone to trouble and to target resources accordingly. “If you go by the maps, you see where the crime is and you deploy there,” explains a former Assistant Police Commissioner. “That crime goes down. Then those people that need the help the most get the best service.”

Computers using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) allow District Managers to visualize criminal hot spots quickly, and that intelligence is followed up by rapid force deployment and relentless, thorough investigations. Rigorous weekly assessments hold managers accountable for new or lingering crime clusters. Other cities like Rochester, N.Y., Baltimore and New Orleans have copied these highly effective methods with similar success. On the website of the Winnipeg Police Service or in its 2003 Annual Report, you will find no mention of the terms COMSTAT or GIS.

Or consider, from England, the Blair Government’s new white paper on police reform, with its ten-point “customer charter.” Local police stations will send every home a yearly report about crime in their neighbourhood, with numbers of burglaries, car thefts and attacks, compared with other places. The reports will include police station hours and names and contact information of local beat officers; they will identify who is in charge and explain how locals can make complaints about service. Residents will be able to contact named officers by mobile phone and e-mail.

Early in October, our boys in blue did trumpet a favourable public opinion poll reporting increases in the number of Winnipeggers who think the force is doing a good job and who feel safe in their neighbourhoods. Unsurprisingly, people here and elsewhere tend to support their local police. If the Winnipeg Police Service moved aggressively to tighten its performance, even more public approval would follow.

StatsCan data shows a 27% drop in the Canadian crime rate since it peaked about 12 years ago, but that apparent improvement may be illusory. In 1993, the public reported 42% of criminal acts to the police; today only 35% enter the database. One used to be able to report crimes by telephone. Now you have to go to the station to register minor crimes. Many don’t bother. The same proportion of Canadians, a quarter every year, still claims to be the victims of a criminal act.

Although we should avoid making the perfect the enemy of the good, the Winnipeg Police Service can do better. Perhaps Sam Katz could put a little zip into his so-far lacklustre term as Mayor by devising an intelligent plan to achieve more effective use of existing police resources.