Police to Staff Ratios

According to Marc Pellerin, Vice President of the Winnipeg Police Association, in an article in the June 6th edition of the Winnipeg Sun, the  City’s answer to increased workloads in the Winnipeg Police Service is  “whipping the same tired ponies” to do more.    The Association advocates for more “ponies” and they may well be in a position to make that case.  The question is,  should they be police “ponies” or staff “ponies”.

Pellerin makes the observation that the City has funds available to pay overtime for  revenue generating activities that relate to traffic enforcement but lacks the funds for other activities such as investigations of serious violent crime.  The latter, although a major threat to the safety of Winnipeg’s citizens, does not generate cash flow for the city’s coffers as traffic enforcement does and instead represents a monetary drain.

In the overall context of staffing and workload there may be another more basic and fundamental issue at play here.  Cities, when setting police budgets, frequently use comparisons to other cities to justify either increased or decreased police related spending.  The most frequently used comparisons center around police to population and per capita cost of policing ratios.  Table 1 displays that information for Winnipeg and three other Canadian cities.

Table 1

City Police to Population Ratio Per Capita Cost
Winnipeg 1:491 $256.00
Toronto 1:471 $348.00
Edmonton 1:628 $305.00
Calgary 1:631 $265.00

Source:  Statistics Canada (2008)

There is one other ratio that has a very direct impact on police efficiency and effectiveness – the staff to police ratio.  Unfortunately, it does not garner the same attention as the number of police officers on the street.  It should, though, as the staff to police ratio is one of the determining factors as to what portion of their 10 hour shift officers spend on the street and what portion they spend in the office.   Table 2 shows that information for the same four cities:

Table 2

City Police Officers Support Staff Staff/Police Ratio
Winnipeg 1358 369 1:3.69
Toronto 5633 2895 1:1.94
Edmonton 1457 520 1:2.80
Calgary 1723 629 1:2.73

Source:  Statistics Canada (2008)

Part of the workload problem identified by Pellerin may not relate so much to the actual number of police officers as to the staff to police ratio.

Sometimes an analogy helps to clarify an issue.  Let’s use a restaurant as an example. For the sake of argument let’s assume that restaurants have only two classifications of employees, servers who take and relay orders and serve the food once its prepared, and cooks who receive the orders and prepare them.  The number of serving personnel and cooks required are determined by the demand ( in a police setting that would be the amount of crime and the number of calls for service).

Once the demand is determined the restaurant owner hires servers and cooks based on demand.

If there are too many servers and not enough cooks, the orders will be taken quickly but there will be a delay in the food being served as there is a backlog in the kitchen.  If there are too many cooks and not enough serving staff, there will also be delays – but for a different reason.  There will be delays in taking orders.  The orders, once they get to the cooks, will be prepared quickly but will sit and get cold waiting for a server to deliver them to the customer.

This is where the role of management becomes important.  Management must recognize the problem and balance the ratio of cooks and servers to achieve an efficient use of human resources.

What happens when management does not address this issue?  The cooks and the servers will step outside their assigned job functions to make the situation work despite management inaction.  The ‘system’ will attempt to self regulate itself and reach an equilibrium.

If you have too many servers and not enough cooks, the cooks will engage some of the servers to cook.  It the opposite is the case, some of the cooks will start serving the food.

So if the system will tend to self regulate itself, what is the problem?  It’s this: servers may not have the qualifications to be cooks and the quality of the food being prepared will suffer and invariably result in customer complaints.  Cooks may well be able to satisfactorily serve food but it is a poor use of resources as they are being paid at a higher rate than servers and to use them as servers in the long-term is not economically feasible.

In restaurants as in policing, the proper ratio is important.  Just as in restaurants if the police to staff ratio is not appropriate, either of two things will start to happen.   If you have too many staff members and not enough police officers the staff members will attempt to undertake ‘police work’ for which they are not trained.  On the other hand, if the ratio is skewed the other way and you don’t have enough staff, sworn police officers will through necessity start performing staff work just to get the job done.  This means fully armed and highly paid police officers will be in the police station performing administrative tasks instead of out on the street dealing with crime.  This is what is happening in Winnipeg.

Until the police/staff ratio is recognized as an issue and addressed,  police officers will spend too much of their time doing administrative tasks such as filling in forms, writing reports, and  filing.  In other words, administrative functions.

In Winnipeg the staff/police ratio is 1:3.69.  There is a reason why other police agencies strive for a ratio in the range of 1:2.5.  It relates to efficiency; it relates to effectiveness;  its part of sound human resource management; and effective use of resources.

The Mayor likes to add to the police complement (providing the Province is willing to fund the positions, of course) but it seems there is a hesitancy to bolster the number of support staff.  Eventually the imbalance in the police to staff ratio will jump up and bite you.  Actually, it already has.