Why isn’t City Council pushing back on the Edmonton Police Service?

An Edmonton Journal editorial in late 2002 discussed the potential decision between the police union’s campaign for 300 new officers and the operating expenses of the new helicopter that had just been donated by the Edmonton Police Foundation:

“Some would argue that the city should find the money to provide both more officers and the chopper. Yet how realistic is that? And if we must choose, which option will provide the best policing?”

In the end, Council voted to add an extra $5.1 million to the 2003 operating budget to hire 55 new officers, but rejected an increase to pay for the helicopter operating expenses. Police chief Bob Wasylyshen promised to find money elsewhere in his budget to enable the helicopter to fly.

Oh how times have changed. Now, the police get a new helicopter paid for by taxpayers, along with the operating costs of that helicopter, and they’ll get likely an increase in officers too.

Instead of asking EPS to find efficiencies in its budget as in years past, recent Councils seem content to go out of their way to support the growth of the police budget, both operating and capital. Instead of applying “Council’s 2%” to the police, Mayor Iveson is instead going to lobby higher levels of government for more money. And this year he went further – inexplicably, he’s going to lobby the helicopter industry to build a better product!

I want to live in a safe community and I have great respect for the work our police officers do. But as a taxpayer, I also want to know that I’m getting the best return on my investment. So I think it’s fair to question the police service, and as the largest part of the budget at between 16-18%, to question them harder than other departments. Is EPS really operating at maximum efficiency? Is there truly no room in the budget, now more than $360 million a year, to improve the way our police service runs?

The 20 year drought ends

Though police staffing levels have increased considerably in recent years, there was a long period of time during which the number of officers remained stagnant, despite increases in our population.

In 1991, police chief Doug McNally fought to add 11 officers, but was left with a budget of $76 million and the ability to add just one officer. He said EPS “desperately” needed additional staff, partly due to the roughly 90,000 more people that were living in the city compared with 1981.

Ten years later, in budget discussions in 2002, Councillors asked EPS about their staffing levels. The police noted that despite an increase in population of about 115,000 people from 1982 to 2001, the number of authorized police officers increased by just one to 1,138. That means the ratio of police officers to citizens went from one for every 485 people to one for every 585 people. Total FTEs had increased just 332 to 1,494.

change in ftes

Since 2001, the population has increased by about 212,000 people, and the number of FTEs at EPS has gone up by 780, to more than 2,200 today. The number of officers totals a little over 1,600. And with the 2015 budget, EPS is proposing to increase to more than 2,400 (with more than 1,700 officers), as shown in the chart above.

Declining crime stats

Despite the stagnation in staffing levels through the 1990s, crime statistics in Edmonton fell along with the rest of Canada. In 1995, Edmonton led the country with a 19% drop in crime. If the number of officers didn’t increase, how did the decrease happen? Tony Mandamin, chair of the Edmonton Police Commission at the time, offered his opinion: “What I take from that is we’re doing something different and the number one thing we’re doing different is community-based policing.”

Acting chief Al Buerger agreed, saying “no police department on its own can have that effect.” The local push to support community-based policing began in 1991. Crime rates continued to fall through the 90s and into the early 2000s.

change in csi

Despite some blips over the last 15 years, we can see that crime has continued to fall. The Crime Severity Index (includes all Criminal Code violations including traffic, drug violations, and all Federal statutes), which for Edmonton stood at 150.57 in 1998, was down to 93.34 in 2013, the most recent year for which data is available.

The latest statistics show that crime is down across the entire country more or less uniformly.

The disconnect

Despite the decrease in crime, we hear the same refrain year after year. We need more police officers, because the work is getting more complex and our population is increasing so dramatically.

In 1994, facing cuts in provincial grants to EPS, chief Doug McNally said “we’re absolutely assured the quality of policing will go down.” But we know that in fact it went up.

In 2001, Council cut the proposed EPS budget by $1.7 million, and they shaved $1.5 million off the capital budget too. Police chief Bob Wasylyshen said the move left him “flabbergasted”. Yet they found a way to improve the service being offered anyway.

One could argue that the increase in officers throughout the last 15 years is the reason for the decrease in crime, but you can’t make that argument for the 15 years before that. There seems to be a disconnect between the dire warnings from EPS and the facts.

Air-1, Air-2, and the helicopter debate

Despite the correlation between community policing and a decrease in crime rates, we have increasingly decided to spend money on other approaches. Like helicopters.

The push to acquire a police helicopter picked up speed in the late 1990s, but it wasn’t until 2002 that Air-1 was purchased and brought into regular service. A one year pilot project began in August 2001 with a leased helicopter, and a public lottery raised the $1.7 million needed to purchase it the following year. Initially, it was expected that Air-1 would cost EPS about $600,000 per year in operating costs.

In response to questions from Council in 2002 about replacing Air-1:

“The helicopter has an expected life cycle of 30 years. The EPS has an obligation to ensure the on-going maintenance will enable the equipment to remain in top condition.”

“Replacement of the helicopter has not been contemplated at this time. City funds are not anticipated to be used for any replacement of this citizen sponsored initiative. Partnership and other funding sources will be explored when this becomes a necessity.”

Then in September 2006, it was revealed that EPS was assessing the feasibility of a replacement or a complete rebuild of the helicopter. Instead, we ended up with a second helicopter. Total funding of $2 million for Air-2 was approved in 2008 ($1.65 million for the helicopter, $350,000 to outfit it for police work) and the helicopter was purchased and went into service in August 2009.

When Air-2 was purchased, the rationale was for it to take over as the primary eye in the sky, given that Air-1 was said to be unavailable 30% of the time because of maintenance.

Air 2 - Dim
Air-2, photo by Buie

We’re currently spending about $1.9 million each year on the police helicopters. Operating costs like fuel and maintenance account for $1.1 million, with the remaining $800,000 spent on personnel for six positions. In response to a question from Councillor Sohi, the EPS said “this $1.1 million is equivalent to 8 constables, but in all likelihood this $1.1 million would just be used to offset the productivity efficiencies that are realized as a result of Air-1.” Back in 2000 when public campaigns to fund a helicopter were picking up steam, an EPS official suggested a helicopter could be as effective as 30 officers.

Helicopters “are operationally available 4,845 hours over 365 days in a year, weather and maintenance permitting.” That’s half the year that they are available, but they are only budgeted to be in the air for a total of 1,700 hours, or 35% of the available time. In 2013, they flew 1,611 total hours.

We know that while the helicopters are effective when they are involved (with a 99.2% apprehension rate) the problem is they aren’t involved very often. The average response time to respond to a call is 73 seconds, but most “criminal flights” as they are called are quite short. In 2012, the helicopters were only involved in 64 or 37.6% of all recorded criminal flights.

Combined with poor weather, the helicopters just aren’t available or useful to police very often, a point that Councillor Knack returned to again and again during the most recent debate. Is that something we should be spending money on?

New helicopter(s)

In proposing the purchase of two helicopters this budget cycle, EPS Chief Knecht suggested the police would not be back at Council asking for new helicopters for close to 20 years. “Yeah right!” was my first thought. And I think that EPS’s own recommendations would call the chief’s comments into question. In response to a question from Mayor Iveson on the viability of purchasing a new EC130, EPS wrote:

“To maximize trade-in value and minimize maintenance, the EPS’s life span recommendations for any single engine helicopter within the program is 8-10 years. For a twin engine helicopter a 10- 12 year consideration is advocated.”

So realistically, EPS would be back in 10 years asking to replace their twin-engine helicopters had Council approved them.

And they didn’t want just any old helicopter, they wanted the Cadillac option at $7.2 million a piece. That’s firmly in the want category, as far as I am concerned.

In response to a question from Mayor Iveson about the pros and cons of the EC130 helicopter, EPS wrote, “EC-130’s are rarely used for law enforcement service in North America and are not viable for flight patrol operations.” If that’s the case, then how did our police service end up with two of them? UPDATE: Our service flies EC120 choppers.

EPS was looking for twin-engine models, but Council discussed the possibility of a single-engine option instead. Here’s what EPS had to say about the difference between a single-engine and a twin-engine helicopter:

“Generally, the major difference between a single engine helicopter and a twin engine helicopter is the ability for the twin to continue flying in the event one engine fails. The redundancy of this second engine would allow the EPS to reliably and safely navigate the helicopter into small spaces like helipads, heliports and forward operating bases within congested areas of the city. This redundancy also would contribute to the increased safety associated to flying longer distances over the ever expanding “built up” areas of the growing city.”

For the safety of the officers flying them, let’s hope the engines don’t fail very often. Still, that redundancy doesn’t seem like a great reason to buy a new helicopter, let alone a much more expensive one.

Though Mayor Iveson did ask about the potential for using drones, EPS basically responded that current Transport Canada regulations make them impractical for police work (despite the fact that the RCMP already uses them in some situations). “Helicopter’s and UAV platforms are not mutually exclusive,” they wrote, presumably in a bid to hang on to their helicopter funding. While that may be true, it’s not difficult to look at the rapidly increasing level of investment into drones and the changing regulatory landscapes around the world to see that we should be examining the technology more closely.

Let’s put data analytics to work on the budget

I think the helicopter debate is instructive, because it’s full of information that just doesn’t hold up upon inspection. Just like the disconnect in staffing levels vs. crime rate, there seems to be a big gap between what EPS says about the helicopters and what is actually the case.

Here’s another example. Question after question from Councillor Nickel about the 2015 operating budget was met with the same response from EPS: “The EPS does not formally measure and report on the “insert measurement here” as defined by Statistics Canada, and hence this data is not provided for 2014.” This is what we hear all the time – local police don’t use the same statistics, so it can’t be compared. Well, why not? Why aren’t we demanding comparable data? It makes it seem like they’re hiding something.

It shouldn’t be enough to point to an increasing population and to just say “the work is more complex.” The police have one of the most sophisticated data analysis systems/teams in the city, so why can’t we have better justification for their budget requests?

New helicopter is a go, what about new officers?

Mayor Iveson called the meeting this week “the most complex bit of procedural chicanery” he has ever seen. Councillor Oshry called the discussion “city government at its almost worst”. I listened on Monday night, when the first vote took place, confused all the Councillors, and was postponed until Tuesday morning.

After a long and difficult debate (that ended up being more about procedure than the issue at hand), Council voted to spend $3.47 million to buy a new single-engine police helicopter. They made that purchase subject to a report on how the new helicopter would be stored, maintained, and operated, and a report evaluating the pros and cons of the EC130 (the existing model of Air-1 and Air-2) versus the AC350 (the single-engine helicopter proposed by EPS). They also voted to have the mayor work with the Police Commission and federal government to explore housing the helicopter fleet at CFB Edmonton.

But wait, there’s more! They also decided it would be a good use of Mayor Iveson’s time to “advocate to the helicopter industry on the prospects for a suitable forthcoming enclosed tail rotor single engine model.” Look, if anyone can understand the appeal of digging in and truly understanding an issue, it’s me. But do we really need the mayor to become an expert on helicopters? And to use his already limited time to advocate to the helicopter industry? Not in my opinion.

So far during the 2015 budget discussions, Council has committed to a new helicopter (among other police-related capital expenditures) and to having the mayor lobby others for more money. Soon they’ll need to make a decision about growing the operating budget.

eps net operating requirement

Since 1999, the EPS operating budget has grown to more than $360 million. In the chart above, you can see the net operating requirement (the amount our taxes cover after revenue is taken into account) has increased by nearly three times, from about $101 million to almost $300 million.

Doing more with less

Not that long ago, Council seemed more willing to push back on EPS requests for increased funding. In 2004 for instance, EPS was tasked with cutting $2 million from its 2005 administration budget in order to help pay for up to 124 new patrol officers. A similar challenge doesn’t seem to be on the table this time around.

I don’t disagree that the Province and the federal government should contribute more to the police budget. If it’s true that EPS is handling an ever increasing workload for the feds, and I have no reason to question officials who say that’s the case, then perhaps EPS should make information about that available. At the moment, it’s not clear what portion of proposed increases are for local policing versus other work.

It’s not uncommon to hear that often the best solutions arise during times of restriction, not abundance. That’s what happened in the 1990s. “Community policing isn’t sexy,” wrote current Councillor Scott McKeen in his column in the Journal on December 11, 2002, noting that the helicopter had captured the public’s imagination. “It just works.”

In the midst of new helicopters and additional officers, I just hope we’re not missing out on the modern day equivalent of community policing. What could EPS do if they were a bit less comfortable?

What’s next for Edmonton Stories?

The last time I wrote about Edmonton Stories, I questioned the value of the initiative. Here’s what I wrote back in September:

I think Edmonton Stories is a great concept, and I’m glad to see that Edmontonians are contributing stories. The project was created to help market the city elsewhere though, and I don’t think it is accomplishing that yet.

I didn’t see any connection between the fantastic collection of stories that Edmontonians had contributed to the site and the marketing of Edmonton to others. Based on the reaction to that post, I don’t think I was alone in wondering what the next step was for Edmonton Stories.

Last week I sat down with Mary Pat Barry, Communications Branch Manager at the City of Edmonton, to try to get an answer to that question. We talked for about an hour in her office at City Hall, looking at the website itself, statistics, a case study, and marketing materials. The fact that I had been critical of the project in the past didn’t seem to bother Mary Pat. Not because she didn’t care, but because she was so excited to convince me of the value of Edmonton Stories. She could see the bigger picture, and she wanted me to see it too.

First, here are the latest statistics (May 14, 2009 to January 31, 2010):

  • 272 stories posted
    • 176 user generated
    • 55 containing video
    • 5 containing audio
    • 6 non-English language stories
  • 515 comments posted (100 stories have comments)
  • Users in 3,929 cities from 162 countries have visited the site
  • Total Visits: 203,685
  • Total Unique Visitors: 162,313
  • Total Page Views: 542,488
  • Time on Site: 00:01:42
  • 59.3% of visitors came from outside Edmonton

The statistics have also been broken down into two phases: the contesting phase (May 14 to September 15) and the post-contesting phase (September 16 to January 31). The number of visits and page views have both declined from the first phase to the second, but after talking to Mary Pat, I’m not sure that matters much.

At its core, Edmonton Stories is all about labor and visitor attraction. It exists because the old or standard ways of attracting skilled labor or visitors to Edmonton either are not very effective, or are very expensive. It exists because the best people to share why Edmonton is a great city are Edmontonians themselves. With that in mind, I think it’s useful to think of Edmonton Stories as a two-stage project:

  1. Gather stories from Edmontonians
  2. Attract labor and visitors using those stories

Mary Pat said she was “awed” with regards to the first stage. That so many Edmontonians took the time to write and share their stories is not something to take lightly. The collection of stories is a great asset.

The second stage is the answer to what’s next. Instead of just explaining it to me, Mary Pat showed me a recruitment partnership case study with the Edmonton Police Service (EPS).

In the fall of 2009 EPS was set to launch a recruiting initiative in select locations in the United States (Seattle, Cleveland and New York City). Confident that the EPS Recruiting Unit could effectively extol the attractiveness of the police service and the work it demands, EPS turned to the City of Edmonton for advice on how they might promote Edmonton as a potential home for recruits and their families.

The City of Edmonton’s solution? Edmonton Stories. The idea was to use the content on EdmontonStories.ca, the personal, tangible experiences of real people, in a targeted way to help EPS recruit new members. I remember reading about the recruitment efforts, but the news articles never mentioned that Edmonton Stories was involved. Here’s what Edmonton Stories did to help:

  • Built a dedicated page featuring stories written by Edmonton police officers: http://www.edmontonstories.ca/eps
  • Created a guide for on-site recruits describing how best to use the dedicated page
  • Produced branded “conversation cards” to hand out at hiring fairs
  • Promoted the dedicated EPS page on Twitter, Facebook, and Google AdWords.

The experiment was a great success. Edmonton Stories had 6.7 times more visitors from Cleveland after the recruitment fair, and 8.1 times more visitors from New York City (the first city, Seattle, was sort of used to figure things out). According to candidate surveys, 74% had not considered Edmonton as a place to live before the recruitment fair, while after, 76% reported they would likely or very likely relocate to Edmonton, and 84% planned on submitting an application to EPS within the next six months. Most importantly, EPS received an “unprecedented” number of detailed applications from potential recruits met at the recruitment fairs. The total number is 6, but for an application process that can take 18 months, that’s seen as very successful.

It’s difficult, of course, to separate the effect Edmonton Stories had on the campaign from the rest of the EPS recruitment efforts, but those involved feel Edmonton Stories had a significant impact.

The City of Edmonton can now take what was developed for the EPS and apply it to other industries. They can provide specific industry stories, the recruiters guide, conversation cards, and much more to recruiters to help attract talent to Edmonton. The stories that Edmontonians have shared are finally being put to use.

I asked Mary Pat if the focus on helping recruiters would take away from maintaining the website itself. While she conceded that less effort has been put into attracting new stories, she said that the website certainly remains a focus. She highlighted two things – translations and a redesign. The team is working on 19 languages for 36 stories, with 10 languages available at launch. The translations take time, because Edmonton Stories works to get approval from each of the authors before posting. The redesign, live as of today, brings a fresh look, a news section, new ways of discovering stories, and tighter integration with social media services.

I think that asking whether or not Edmonton Stories is delivering a return on investment is still a fair question. However, it’s clear to me now that there’s direction and a way for the site to deliver on its core objective of attracting labor and visitors to Edmonton. I think the EPS case study is exciting, and demonstrates that Edmonton Stories can provide value.

Edmonton Sun violates the EPS Crime Map Terms of Use

Back in July, the Edmonton Police Service launched its Neighbourhood Crime Mapping site. Like most people I was quite enthusiastic about the site, until I read the terms of use and realized how restrictive they were. Basically you can look at the numbers, but you can’t do anything with them (such as publish them on a blog). The Crime Mapping site is not open data. I emailed back and forth with the EPS, and was told that they wouldn’t be changing the terms of use. And, they haven’t.

That didn’t stop the Edmonton Sun, however. They apparently ignored the terms of use altogether, and published an article on December 20th summarizing a number of statistics from the website:

Some of Edmonton’s roughest neighbourhoods faced markedly fewer crimes in 2009, according to police statistics.

The statistics came through a new crime mapping system launched by Edmonton police last summer.

I had asked for permission to do something similar and was turned down. After reading the Sun article, I emailed the EPS to find out if the terms of use had been changed (despite the text on the website staying the same). Here’s what Acting S/Sgt. John Warden wrote back:

The Edmonton Sun did not have the EPS’ permission to use the information from the Crime Mapping website and the EPS is dealing directly with the Edmonton Sun in relation to this.

I emailed back a couple of follow-up questions, but have not yet received a response. The Edmonton Sun article is still active on the website, so I’m not exactly sure what “dealing directly with the Edmonton Sun” means.

I’m annoyed by this, obviously. Was it an honest mistake? Maybe. Is it a case of a large media organization getting off the hook? Maybe. Will it happen again? Probably. No one reads the fine print, we all know that.

I don’t think the current terms of use is appropriate, and I strongly urge the Edmonton Police Service to change it.

EPS responds to my query about the Crime Mapping terms of use

Last week I posted about the new Crime Mapping site launched by the Edmonton Police Service (EPS). One of my criticisms of the site was the very restrictive terms of use or disclaimer that you must agree to before you can use the site. In particular:

While it is acceptable to pass the website link on to others in your community, you will not share the information found on the website with others other than with members of the Edmonton Police Service or other law enforcement agencies; and

You will only use this website and the information in it so you can inform yourself of, and participate in, this community policing initiative;

This is problematic because it effectively means that you can’t do anything with the data that EPS has now made available. You can look at it using their site, but you can’t then blog about that data, or add it to a PowerPoint presentation.

I emailed a request for clarification and received a response from Amit Sansanwal, Criminal Statistics Coordinator at EPS. I asked for and was granted permission (by their legal department) to publish his response:

The EPS views the Neighbourhood Crime Mapping website as a valuable addition to our community policing initiative.

The EPS, however, is of the view that this tool can only be effective and achieve its community policing objectives if people seeking the information visit the Neighbourhood Crime Mapping website directly themselves.

By visiting the website, hopeful participants in this EPS community policing initiative can learn about what kind of information is available to them (e.g. crime prevention and partnership programs) and how it fits within this program.

We appreciate your interest in this program and hope that you tell others about the existence of the Neighbourhood Crime Mapping website.

In a later email, Amit pointed out that the current preferred way to get EPS statistics is through Statistics Canada.

The crux of their position, if I understand it correctly, is that they don’t want people looking for crime statistics to come across an inaccurate or malicious source. That seems reasonable. The problem is that such a position assumes people are actively seeking the information. By opening up access to the data and allowing others to make use of it, they can potentially reach far more Edmontonians, not to mention the benefits that could come from mashups or other data visualizations. Furthermore, it seems as though they just want to force people to use the Crime Mapping site so that they can promote additional programs to users.

The Crime Mapping site is fun to look at, but I would argue its utility is restricted by the current terms of use. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like that’ll be changing any time soon.

Edmonton Police Service (EPS) Crime Mapping tool now online

Back in June we learned that the Edmonton Police Service was planning to launch a new website that would enable citizens to find crime statistics for their neighbourhoods. This afternoon, the EPS Crime Mapping tool went online, and it does just that. You can search for stats on eight types of crimes in any neighbourhood across any time period since 2007. From the press release:

The new crime mapping tool will provide members and citizens with a better understanding of what is going on the neighbourhoods they work and live in.

I’ve been playing with the site today, and I like it. There are pros and cons, however.

How It Works

The first step is to agree to the disclaimer – more on that in a minute. Next, you pick the crimes you want statistics for. The eight types include assault, break and enter, homicide, robbery, sexual assaults, theft from vehicle, theft of vehicle, and theft over $5000. Third, you pick the neighbourhood – there are 357 listed in the system. Finally, you select the time period. There are some quick selections such as yesterday or the last 30 days, or you can enter any two dates. Click “Show Crimes” and your neighbourhood appears on the map, covered in colored dots to represent the reported crimes. Here’s what Oliver looks like for the last 30 days with all crime types selected:

There’s also a “View Statistics” tab above the map that will show you a table for the last three years broken down by month, with a graph below that.

The Good

There are some really good things about this site. First and foremost, the data is excellent. I’m glad that they included everything up-front, instead of doing a test release or something to start. Second, it’s built using Google Maps. This is a big win for EPS – it’s a stable technology that Google is continually making better, and I would guess that most Edmontonians are familiar with it. Third, it’s fast. Almost as soon as you click the button, your stats appear.

The Bad

There are two things about the site that I don’t like. First is the disclaimer – it’s too restrictive. These two points in particular are problematic:

While it is acceptable to pass the website link on to others in your community, you will not share the information found on the website with others other than with members of the Edmonton Police Service or other law enforcement agencies; and

You will only use this website and the information in it so you can inform yourself of, and participate in, this community policing initiative;

That effectively means you can’t do anything with the data. This is in direct contrast with what the press release would lead you to believe:

Providing our citizens with the real picture of neighbourhood crime is the first step in engaging them to do something about it. Members of the public will be better equipped with knowledge to work collaboratively with the EPS to reduce and prevent crime.

What’s the point of making the data available if you can’t do anything with it? Why can’t I blog about the crime stats in a particular neighbourhood? Or mash the crime stats up with some other data? I challenge the notion that simply being able to see the dots on a map equips me to do something about crime in my neighbourhood.

I’ve emailed the feedback address listed on the site asking about this, but I haven’t yet received a response.

The second bad thing about the site is that while it does make data available, it does so in an opaque and closed way. If Edmonton is going to become an open city (with respect to data), sites like the crime mapping tool need to provide information for multiple audiences. One is the average citizen who is happy to click around on the map. Another increasingly important audience is the creative professional who wants to do something with the data, and needs it in a machine-readable format such as a CSV or XML file.

The Undocumented API

The first thing I did after testing the site with my neighbourhood was poke around for clues about where the data comes from. It didn’t take long to realize that there’s a JSON web service behind the application. You can access it here. It’s probably not meant for public consumption, but it’s there and it works. I was able to throw some code together in about 30 minutes to get data out of the service. While it would still be good to have static data files available, the API largely negates the con I mentioned above. As it is unofficial however, who knows if it will remain active and working, so enjoy it while you can.

Final Thoughts

Overall I think the Crime Mapping tool is excellent. We need more applications and services like this, though with less restrictive terms/licensing and easier-to-access data. Kudos to EPS for building this, and let’s hope they improve it.

UPDATE: There are more details in this article. For instance, the tool apparently cost $20,000 to build, and is automatically updated each morning.