Police response times are an unreliable measurement

Post by Daniel Fontaine in

1 comment

Most criminals can be in and out of your house before you know it
Most criminals can be in and out of your house before you know it

A few weeks ago, the Vancouver Police Department’s communications and marketing department got revved up and advised the media that things were getting better. Well, they didn’t quite put it in those words. What they revealed was that VPD response times were dropping. According the Mayor Gregor Robertson, all those police officers approved by the previous NPA council are now having the effect of reducing the time it takes for a police officer to get onto the scene of a crime.

At first blush, this all seems rather positive. More funding from City Hall translates into more recruits, which leads to a faster response from the police. How much faster you ask? Well, almost 10 million additional dollars poured into the police budget over the last several years has resulted in a 15-second reduction in response time.

Now, you might say when a crime is occurring, every second counts. And you’d be right. But the reality is that even with these additional resources, it still takes the police on average about 9 minutes to make it to a priority call such as a burglary in progress.

I vaguely recall one staff briefing I attended when working in the Mayor's office where it was indicated that most of the bad guys robbing your house actually do it rather quickly. Not a big surprise there, it’s not like they’re going to hang around and have a low fat mocha waiting for the authorities to arrive.

I'm vague on the exact time, but I understand that most thieves can make it in and out of your home (even while the alarm is blaring) and rob you blind in less than about 5 minutes. Once they're done, give them another two minutes in the getaway vehicle, and they're lost in traffic.

So even if investing millions in the police has reduced response times slightly, is it really going to have any effect on reducing crime or eventually catching the bad guys? I’m not a criminologist, but it would take millions more in funding and a cop patrolling every square block to have any real impact on reducing crime. This would be money that, as Edmonton’s mayor rightly points out, should be invested in after school and youth crime prevention programs.

The problem with focusing too heavily on response times is that all we’re really talking about is ensuring a police officer gets to the scene faster once the crime has been committed. Using response times as a measurement of success only tells you how quickly police get to the scene of the crime after it’s occurred. Admittedly, they do arrive faster to some crimes in progress, but these wouldn’t appear to be the majority of calls.

A better measurement of the VPD’s performance would be to determine whether or not new investments are actually reducing the overall crime rate. In other words, are they catching the bad guys before they actually commit the crime? After all, wouldn’t most citizens see this as one of the top priorities of law enforcement?

We must never forget that demographics are also playing a large role in why overall crime rates have been dropping in the last decade in almost every major city in Canada. Therefore, any measurement of success or request for new resources should be juxtaposed against this reality.

While I applaud the VPD for reducing response times, their marketing department’s fixation on the response time statistic can lead to bad human resource management, and wasted tax dollars. Assuming resources will remain tight, perhaps the time has come to ensure we have the right tools to measure the effectiveness of policing in our big cities.

1 Comment

Your column on police response times is correct. A 15 second average improvement is not worth mentioning. A less than 10 minute response should be acceptable as we can not reasonably expect sub 5 minute times. Even the excellent ambulance service typically has 10+ minutes according to my experience. I suspect the solution to the break in and other street level crimes problem is to be found in the courts. I have read studies that document the facts---a small number of persistent criminals are responsible for the vast majority of criminal acts. If we could lock these criminals away for a long time as incorrigibles then we would get a better and cheaper result than drastically increasing the police budget. Will this happen? I think not because the bleeding hearts in our society would cry foul and that would be the end of it.

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