Shining a Light on Ottawa Police Staffing

(originally published – Ottawa Sun, Saturday June 10, 2017)

 

Nearly a century ago social-scientists determined that people change their behavior when they realize that they are being observed. Called the “Hawthorne Effect,” this theory helps to explain the changes in how parties interact when a third-person enters the picture – like a family mediator or community leader in a neighbourhood dispute. While the original research looked at workplace productivity the theory concluded that people behave more responsibly and within boundaries of expected social norms when observed by an outside person. This is consistent with an American police study on the effective use of decoy-vehicles to reduce driving infractions.  New York City’s “Times Square,” once a crime-ridden bruise on the Big Apple, has been transformed over the past few decades in large part by a consistent police presence in the Square and the immediate area around it.  As a component of proactive policing, the Hawthorne Effect is a useful analogy for our consideration of the question of police presence in crime prevention here in Ottawa.

Recent gun violence in the Market has highlighted the need for more scrutiny of police presence in Ottawa’s popular entertainment district. The violent death of one person and attempted murder of another, followed by an interaction with police ending in the suspected killer’s death requires an honest evaluation of current policing levels. We believe that Chief Charles Bordeleau’s recent decision to restructure street-level policing models eliminating the “District” police assignments in favour of “Patrol” assignments – has set the stage for the current worrying trend.

The distinction between “District” and “Patrol” officers warrants a brief explanation. District policing has officers assigned to a neighbourhood, and their exclusive focus is on the safety of the area. These officers get to know the shopkeepers, the residents and areas of concern. A District officer creates and nurtures relationships with the local community, and is an ever-present resource to maintain the peace.

 On the other hand, Patrol officers, though initially assigned to an area, are required to respond to demands for calls anywhere in the city. The Patrol officers priority is that of the call ‘queue’; rightfully so, as this is where calls to 911, and other emergencies await a response. During the course of their shift, and due to an under-resourced police department, seldom is there an opportunity for a patrol officer to engage in proactive, community-minded policing.

Faced with a growing crisis in patrol staffing Chief Bordeleau collapsed the District policing division and relocated these officers to the Patrol division.  No longer are there District police officers anchored to specific neighbourhoods.  The Chief’s decision has resulted in significant changes to the delivery of police services to Ottawa’s residents – most particularly those living or working in well-attended areas like Ottawa’s Market.

Of course this has allowed the Chief and his Executive to now claim that the number of boots-on-the-ground has not changed. Indeed Deputies have claimed that there are more patrol officers in the Market today than in the past – but, like a magician’s slight-of-hand, what appears in one hand ignores what is concealed in the other. Today’s patrol officer assigned to the Market could be required to respond to a call for service in Kanata or Cumberland, rather than stand on the corner of York and Dalhousie Streets. In the end, today there are fewer police officers in the Market.

This isn’t the first time that the Chief of Police has robbed Peter to pay Paul in his staffing practices. Several years ago in response to troubling gun violence across the City, particularly in the Jasmine Crescent area, Chief Bordeleau promised increases in the Guns & Gangs unit in an effort to assuage mounting concerns about adequate police response. After an initial increase in temporary staffing, months later the Chief pulled those added resources out of Guns & Gangs to backfill somewhere else.

Today Ottawa has the lowest staffing level of nearly all major police services in Ontario. Once staffed at comparable levels with other similar municipalities, Ottawa’s staffing levels as a percentage of total population has fallen consistently over the last eight years. The promised staffing increase of seventy-five officers, has yet to make any genuine impact.

The gun violence in the Market was a horrific event for the business owners, residents, students and visitors to our City. Chief Bordeleau’ s decision to collapse the District policing section causes uncertainty in the Market and other areas. In the result, the Chief’s decision eliminates the proactive policing relationship that has been effective for years. This new policing model has not delivered the promises made – police relationships within the community have been lost.

 

Matt Skof

President