Where’s evidence police budget worth the cost?

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The Winnipeg Police Service is costing Winnipeg a lot of money. But has that investment bought any progress on the crime rate? Has the growth in the uniformed ranks, with generous wage increases they've won, made a difference in fighting crime?

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/01/2015 (2809 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Winnipeg Police Service is costing Winnipeg a lot of money. But has that investment bought any progress on the crime rate? Has the growth in the uniformed ranks, with generous wage increases they’ve won, made a difference in fighting crime?

To date, I have not seen the kind of rigorous assessment of police initiatives — a police helicopter, cameras downtown, dedication of officers to special efforts — needed to show they’ve paid off.

The police budget has risen steeply and now accounts for 25 per cent of the city’s budget. Winnipeggers have to ask whether we can afford this level of service.

The arguments we hear to justify the rising costs include the fact Winnipeg has a disproportionately high rate of violent crime. And while it is true the crime rate, generally, has fallen, calls for service are still high.

Further, the WPS has modernized. It followed the example of other big cities and hired a helicopter. Cameras downtown were introduced to deter crime. And the CrimeStat automated program was set up to track crime in the city and improve police response. Crime analysts have finally been hired to study where and how crime is committed, to make staff deployment more efficient, something done in other police services for years. Moreover, the WPS is working more actively with social agencies to prevent crime as opposed to just responding to it. Finally, less-costly cadets have been hired for non-critical policing duties.

But can the police really influence the crime rate? Policing is reactive — police respond to calls; rarely do they catch someone in the act. Study after study has shown that increasing police presence is not noticed by the public. (Doubling patrols means you might see them twice rather than once a day in your neighbourhood, but do you notice?)

Increased patrol has no effect on crime unless it is targeted at hot spots of criminal activity. The police may be doing this but have provided no evidence of it. Police activity can only directly affect crimes such as the sex trade, drug trafficking or drunk driving.

Research conducted by a former student of mine indicates Winnipeggers generally are not more afraid of crime, even though the violent-crime rate is higher here than in other big Canadian cities. Kristin Clarke analyzed fear-of-crime data from Winnipeg surveys in 1984, 1994 and 2004, and found there was no change in fear of theft, assault, robbery, sex assault or fraud crimes.

In fact, we found Winnipeggers do not worry much about crime most of the time. Crime tends to occur in specific places, to groups engaged in certain behaviours, and more rarely to older middle-class people because of where we live and what we do every day.

British researcher J.S. Dutton has argued that people are more often angry about crime, not afraid. Winnipeggers have listed crime much lower on citizen surveys the last couple of years, likely because they finally have made note of the declining crime rate. Health care, infrastructure and other issues are now more important.

So, what is the payoff for the hiring of all these additional officers, and for the other initiatives launched in the last decade? Evidence-based practice involves the scientific study of the impact of treatments/programs. This is done extensively in health care, addictions and corrections.

Police agencies are often resistant to scrutinizing themselves, often at the will of their political masters. Is CrimeStat helping us? Are cameras helping? Most studies say they have no effect on people’s feelings of safety; even some in the police service privately say cameras help solve few cases.

While I think that police involvement with other agencies in the Block by Block social services project is laudable, this initiative too must be studied to see if it has real benefit.

The blind support by city and provincial politicians for the helicopter, the trumpeting of downtown cameras, the addition of new officers for political gain and “tough on crime” appearances have not been followed by any serious effort to assess the initiatives. Politicians apparently do not want to know if their programs really work.

The Winnipeg Police Board, set up for independent oversight of the police service, can provide real leadership in helping the WPS become a “learning organization” by supporting rigorous evaluations that are made public and followed up on.

The worst thing the board could do is become a cheerleader for the WPS. Like any other public service, the police need to justify their cost and adapt if city budgets are cut.

 

Michael Weinrath is the acting dean of graduate studies and a professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg. He worked for 14 years in Alberta provincial corrections public service and during his career had to manage budget cuts as a front-line worker and manager.

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