VERNON - Understaffed police detachments can lead to low morale among officers, less success reducing crime and slower response times, according to criminologists.
Earlier this week, iNFOnews.ca reported on chronic understaffing at the Vernon RCMP detachment, and Dr. Irwin Cohen, the RCMP research chair at the University of the Fraser Valley, says those issues could have an impact on how officers do their work.
Cohen, who has studied several B.C. detachments and surveyed officers during confidential interviews, says the issue of morale is one of the main symptoms of understaffing.
“Members are over-worked, they have low morale. They’re understaffed to start with, so when a proportion of the workforce doesn’t show up, due to maternity, paternity leave or training, it does put a strain on the members who do show up,” he says.
That strain could affect officer performance by reducing the amount of time they can spend at crime scenes and forcing them to be more reactive than proactive when it comes to crime reduction.
“They are more likely to go call-to-call-to-call than do all the things we know police can do really well in reducing calls for service,” Cohen says.
Vernon saw nearly a nine per cent uptick in property crime in the summer of 2016, compared to the same period in 2015, including a significant increase in thefts from vehicles and break-and-enters. Cohen is reluctant to say low staffing levels are behind the spike, but says officers who have time for proactive policing are usually able to drive those types of crimes down.
“I would suggest having a sufficient number of members who are dedicated to proactive policing, and having connections between general duty and your property crime unit and prolific offender program… so you can be proactive rather than reactive, yes would have an impact on property crime,” Cohen says.
Just as there are prolific offenders, Cohen says there are three main ‘prolific problems’ that are driving crime today: addiction, mental health and homelessness — issues which involve the RCMP, but which also beg attention from health authorities, governments, schools and families.
Cohen’s research into RCMP detachments provides a third-party look at how police stations are run, and it’s had some tangible results. His study into the Surrey RCMP recommended 47 additional general duty officers, a call that came after it was revealed some 75 officers weren’t hitting the streets due to sick leave, maternity leave and other absences.
But it’s not all about increased manpower, Cohen says. It’s also how you use it. A number of detachments, including Vernon, are doing something called a General Duty Staffing Assessment to figure out the best use of the resources they have.
Vernon RCMP Supt. Jim McNamara told iNFOnews.ca by email Nov. 10 the assessment is currently underway but could not say when it would be completed. The internal review is conducted in collaboration with the district commander, officer in charge, the general duty staffing committee, and E-Division Business Intelligence Unit.
Cohen says it’s a good way to find out what staffing levels are required in order for officers to respond to the calls they get, while also finding time for proactive policing.
“Say a police officer gets to do a minute-and-a-half of proactive policing until the next call comes in,” Cohen says. “Now say we’d like 30 per cent of (the officer’s) time to be proactive. Then, what is the force-level required so proactive policing isn’t done a minute at a time, but so you have enough members on the road so that for two hours a member can just do proactive policing.”
PERCEPTION OF SAFETY
Rob Gordon, professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University, says understaffing boils down to two main issues, and they both impact the public: Officer safety and efficiency.
A former policeman, Gordon gives the example of having two officers per car — which is not mandatory within the RCMP, although officers are advocating for that to change. While it costs more, Gordon says it solves the problem of waiting for back up, and leads police to be more courageous than they would be alone.
Another aspect is the perception of public safety.
“If you see more officers around, it makes people feel more comfortable and improves a sense of social well-being,” Gordon says.
But it’s not just perception. Short-staffed detachments are likely to find themselves in a public relations nightmare when citizens find themselves calling police.
“It’s the same sentiment that applies to hospitals; nobody cares until they actually need that service, and then when the need is there and they can’t get the service, they are concerned about what’s going on,” Gordon says. “It’s an abstract thing until they want to use an emergency department and get there and can’t see a physician for three hours.”
The RCMP serves the community, and in that respect Gordon says citizens ought to have a voice in how that service is delivered.
“People need to be alert to what’s going on and ask questions of the person in charge of the detachment about how the resources available are being used,” he says. “Vernon probably would benefit from a police committee. That’s a move that should be initiated by the mayor, and council, in (conjunction) with the RCMP detachment… in order to facilitate effective policing in the city.”
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