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More police not the answer: Expert

  - Leader file photo
— image credit: Leader file photo

Surrey now has the strongest police force it’s had in 30 years, but the larger detachment is failing to translate into lower crime rates, statistics show.

An expert in criminology says that’s not surprising, and adds hiring more cops doesn’t necessarily mean a lower crime rate – better and smarter policing does.

The Leader has compiled Surrey’s police officer-per-population ratios over the last 30 years, based on city figures.

The force had a ratio of lower than one police officer per 784 residents from 1986 to 2004. However, the city’s policing made headlines in 2001, when Surrey had only one cop per 911 people.

Dianne Watts, who was a tough-on-crime city councillor at the time, was challenging then-mayor Doug McCallum for the mayor’s chair, which resulted in McCallum hiring 116 more RCMP officers over two years.

It brought the number of Mounties up to one per 750 residents.

Watts took the mayor’s chair in 2005 and has continued hiring police, bringing the ratio to one cop per 725 residents this year.

However, crime statistics indicate the mass hiring isn’t helping Surrey become a regional leader in fighting crime.

The B.C. Policing Jurisdiction Crime Trends, 2003-2012 report was released in November last year, and it paints a fairly bleak picture of crime in Surrey when compared to other large municipalities.

Out of nine of the larger municipalities in the province during that decade, Surrey fared the poorest in some key areas.

From 2003 to 2012, Surrey reduced the total number of Criminal Code offenses by just 12 per cent, when the average drop among cities was 31 per cent.

During that same period, Abbotsford knocked down criminal offenses by 51 per cent, Coquitlam by 44 per cent, Burnaby by 39 per cent and Richmond by 37 per cent.

No other large city fared poorer than Surrey in reducing the total number of Criminal Code offenses.

In violent crime, Surrey did even worse.

Out of all nine of the larger cities, Surrey was the only one recording an increase in violent crime over the decade.

The average was a 19-per-cent reduction. Coquitlam managed to reduce violent crime by 46 per cent, while many others came in at the mid-20 percentile.

Vancouver reduced violent crime by 0.8 per cent during that period.

Property crime wasn’t much better for Surrey, according to the provincial stats.

During the decade studied, amongst the larger cities, Surrey reduced property crime by just 25 per cent, when the average was 38 per cent.

Surrey was eclipsed by Abbotsford (a 58-per-cent decrease), Coquitlam (53 per cent), and Richmond and Vancouver, at just over 40 per cent.

The only large city that showed a lower reduction in property crime than Surrey was Kelowna at 21 per cent.

Despite Dale Carrthe recent hiring blitz in 2004 and 2005, that put this city in the middle of the pack of larger cities in cop-per-population ratios, Surrey still showed the second-highest criminal case load per officer at 65, overworked only by Kelowna at 73.

Surrey RCMP Sgt. Dale Carr (left) said there’s more to the comparisons than just numbers.

“Ultimately, there is not one reason that explains a rise or fall in crime,” Carr said in an e-mail response to The Leader’s questions on Wednesday. “Every crime has specific dynamics and circumstances that are unique. Factors such as growth, demographics and the sheer size of a city can all contribute to crime.”

Dr. Rob Gordon, a professor of criminology and associate dean at Simon Fraser University, said the disparity between the number of cops and high crime rates is not surprising.

“There’s a number of false assumptions – number one is that the way to fight crime is to have more policemen on the streets,” Gordon said.

He said many of the statistics show how much crime is reported by complainants, rather than how much crime is occurring.

More police means more places to report crime, so the crime stats tend to go up, Gordon said.

It’s a publicly popular notion to hire more police, he said, but it may well not be the answer.

“It’s police officers working intelligently and strategically to address crime problems in particular areas (that makes a difference),” said Gordon (pictured below).

Rob Gordon“A lot of police work is what is referred to as ‘street cleaning,’” Gordon said.

Those are the general duty cops performing front-line work, answering disturbances, bar fights, alarm calls, etc.

The Leader revealed last week that there are about 36 general duty officers on any given shift in the city. Mounties say they could use 50.

Gordon said there’s a limit to the number of officers required for that front line work.

“Anything above that doesn’t necessary require more policemen,” Gordon said. Crime still needs to be investigated and dealt with, but in different ways.

What he currently sees in Surrey in particular is a “panic” over the crime rate. Everyone who is running for office is promising more police.

“That’s a politician’s ploy,” Gordon said.

“So, old mayors resurface, see an opportunity, and the first thing they do is start to trumpet the need for more policemen,” Gordon said. “That’s not necessarily so. But it’s a populist response.”

The city – including Surrey First mayoral candidate Linda Hepner – has said it will hire 95 officers over the next five years, 35 more than previously planned.

McCallum, who is running for mayor this November, said he wants those police hired sooner than later.

Undeclared mayoral candidate Coun. Barinder Rasode supported council’s position to hire the 95 Mounties, but wants another 200 unarmed community constables right away.

Gordon said even when there are promises of more police, it’s important to know whether they are replacing retirees and how long will they need after their training to become useful.

“You’ve got two years from recruitment to initial efficiency on the street,” Gordon said. “What happens with officers is they are pushed early into situations and they come apart at the seams.”

He says there’s no acid test for how many police officers an individual municipality will need.

“Community satisfaction, without a shadow of a doubt, is one of the leading issues,” Gordon said. “But the only way to get at that is to get snapshot surveys done, and that’s expensive.”

Dr. Irwin M. Cohen of the University of the Fraser Valley has been commissioned by the City Surrey to examine the city’s police service model.

Cohen will be reviewing the Surrey RCMP’s detachment operations, continuous improvement team, police car motor vehicle accidents, crime reduction strategies and analysis of domestic violence strategies.

He will also be looking at the public opinion of the RCMP.

The report is due within the coming weeks.

Police numbers graphic

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