A Helicopter for the Winnipeg Police Part – V

Several years ago the Winnipeg Police Service (read Mayor Katz) decided that Winnipeg needed (read wanted) a helicopter.  At that time  I wrote a series of posts commenting on the decision-making process employed to determine whether the police service should acquire a helicopter,  as well as the nuts and bolts of running a flight operations unit.

Links to the previous posts are listed here:

A Helicopter for the Winnipeg Police – Part I

A Helicopter for the Winnipeg Police – Part II

A Helicopter for the Winnipeg Police Part – III

A Helicopter for the Winnipeg Police Part – IV

Selling Helicopters Not Naming Rights

Can a Police Helicopter Make Pursuits Safer

The Winnipeg Police Service recently issued the 2012  Flight Operations Unit Annual Report.

It is of some interest to note that the Flight Operations Unit is the only unit within the Police Service that issues an in-depth annual report,  separate and apart from the normal Winnipeg Police Service Annual Report.   Perhaps this is a forerunner of other unit annual reports to come.   I’m being facetious of course.

The only reason the Flight Operations Unit issues a stand alone annual report is to justify the initial capital and subsequent  ongoing operational expenditures of the unit.  The real purpose of the report is to demonstrate that the original decision to purchase a helicopter was a good one.

Although I have not dissected the report in detail I have noticed a number of interesting points.

When the helicopter idea was being ‘sold’ to the public,  politicians and police officials talked about the helicopter being in the air 4 to 5 hours a day.  The 2012 reports shows 2.7 hours of flight time per day.

One of the primary reasons originally cited for acquiring a  helicopter,  was  to deal with Winnipeg’s ongoing problem of auto theft.  A helicopter it was argued would be very beneficial in terms of discouraging auto theft and, in cases where cars had been stolen,  tracking stolen vehicles on the road and assisting in the arrest of auto thieves.

In a previous post I argued that if the Police Service operated a helicopter it would only be available to assist in approximately 12% of stolen car chases.  At the time, some questioned my calculations and subsequent estimate.  Turns out I did indeed miscalculated…. by 2%.     In 2012 the police helicopter was available to assist in a total of 5 pursuits which works out to  just under 14% of the total number of car chases that took place.

And what happened to the promise in terms of the positive effect a helicopter would have on auto theft rates in Winnipeg?  In  the last 12 months auto theft has gone up 10%, this during a period that the Flight Operations Unit was up and running.  This comes on the heels of many years of double-digit declines  thanks to the Auto Theft strategy.

And things are not looking better for 2013.  Although the numbers are still small this early in the  year, the rate of auto theft in Winnipeg climbed 23% so far this year when compared to the same period last year.

Also of interest is the cost per “arrest” in which the helicopter played a role.  Based strictly on the operating budget the Unit spent $1,327,950.00 in 2012.  Based on that figure the cost per arrest that the unit  ‘assisted‘ with  is in the range of $7200.00.  If, however, the capital depreciation cost of the  helicopter is factored in then the cost of operating the unit is more in the range of $ 1, 727,590.00 and the cost per arrest jumps to $9300.00. *

Contrast that with the cost and the results generated by the  Warrant Apprehension Unit.  They also get bad guys off the street – not by ‘assisting’  or being in the vicinity but by actually going out into the street, and doing investigations and apprehensions.  The cost of that unit is in the range of $ .8 million and with an arrest rate of approximately 800 per year, the cost per arrest is in the range of $1000.00, a far cry from $9300.00.

Were an additional $1,727,590.00 allocated to the Warrant Apprehension Unit  at $1000.00 a head they could have arrested an additional 1700 criminals.  That would be a somewhat better return on the dollar than the 285 arrests the Flight Operations Unit  ‘assisted’ with.

*  I’m not suggesting that the number of arrests should be the only criteria used to measure the performance of the Unit.  However,  based on the fact that all but one of the anecdotal examples of Unit activities cited in the report involve arrests,  it is obvious that the Winnipeg Police Service sees this as one of the primary, if not the prime function of the Unit.

Advertisements

Fantasy Island

Remember Fantasy Island?

Tattoo:  “Look boss, de plane, de plane!”

Mr. Roarke:  “No Tattoo, that is not de plane.  That is de Winnipeg Police Helicopter.”

The Winnipeg Police Helicopter,  we are told,  is now operational.

The on time criteria has not been met as it is about 5 months behind schedule.   No word yet as to whether it is on budget.

However, step aside, all ye naysayers:  the Police Service has come up with yet another potential use for the helicopter.

When it is not busy  rescuing elderly confused males lost in the Assiniboine Park Forest, it will be used to fight the anticipated 2011 flood.  Will it be used to deliver sand bags?  No, it is too small for that.  Will it be used to pluck people from the rooftops of their houses?  No, it’s not equipped for that.

What will it do during the flood?

Seeing as it is jointly funded by the city and the province, it could be used to take the mayor and the premier on “rides” so they could view the devastation from topside.  I’m not sure what the protocol is in terms of who has first dibs – the city because it bought the helicopter; or, the province because it pays for the pilot and the fuel.  But I’m sure they will work that out.

In any event, can you visualize this:  the Winnipeg Police helicopter, just a speck in the sky, approaches the flood-way gates where a throng of reporters are waiting.  The helicopter lands, and the mayor and/or the premier get out quickly before the rotor blades stop turning (this allows their hair to get messed so they look like action heroes).  They greet everyone, thank them for coming and launch into a speech describing the great things they are doing to protect Manitobans from devastation.  Then,  quickly back into the helicopter to save us from something else.

Great photo-op I agree but, at several thousand dollars an hour, a bit of an expensive ride.

Lets get real, this is Winnipeg not Fantasy Island.  We have buses not light rail, we have the Moose not the Jets;  the Blue Jays visited once but our everyday fare is the  Goldeyes;  and finally, we have Sam, not a visionary.

Enjoy the ride Sam and as always send us the bill – in one way or another, you always do.

Can a Police Helicopter Make Police Pursuits Safer

The short answer is yes, if it gets there on time.

In a recent article the expert on all things related to helicopters and photo radar AKA Winnipeg Sun columnist Tom Brodbeck again painted a picture for us on how peacefully vehicle pursuits in Winnipeg will end once the police Service has its helicopter.

It seems that every time there is a vehicular pursuit in Winnipeg that does not end well someone in the media makes sweeping statement about how this could have been avoided had the Police Service had its helicopter.  Police vehicle pursuits often end in collisions some with tragic consequences.  There is no doubt that with the presence of a helicopter some tragedies might have been avoided but a caveat needs to be attached.  The caveat is:

  • Had the helicopter been airborne at the time of the incident.

With an optimistic projection of 1000 flight hours per year the Winnipeg police helicopter will be airborne an average of 2.73 hours per day, that just under 12% of the time.  It becomes obvious that unless the police can convince auto thieves to only lead police on car chases during the hours the helicopter is in the air, the vast majority of chases will still need to be addressed using conventional methods.

An examination of vehicle pursuit data in Antonio Texas obtained by the San Antonio Express-News under the Texas Public Information Act revealed some interesting facts:

  • The San Antonio Police Department makes every effort to deploy a helicopter to all police pursuits.
  • Half of all chases end in 3 minutes or less.
  • In San Antonio the helicopter is able to assist in about one-third of all police chases.
  • Two thirds of the time the helicopter was either not in the air or tied up on other calls.

By the way, San Antonio has a fleet of four helicopters.

My original estimate that police in Winnipeg might be able to achieve a 12 per cent attendance rate may have been overstated.

The question that needs to be asked is not only how pursuits are ended but rather why they are initiated.  In a recent study titled Police Pursuits in the Age of Innovation and Reform (2008) available at http://www.theiacp.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=IlJDjYrusBc%3D&tabid=392 the authors Cynthia Lum and George Fachner concluded that once the decision is made to initiate a pursuit in 72 per cent of the cases the outcome (in terms of how the pursuit ends) is almost entirely out of the hands of police.

This underscores the importance of having a sound pursuit policy that places realistic restrictions on the circumstances under which police will pursue a vehicle.  Secondly it underscores the importance of ensuring the pursuit policy is complied with.

Because police pursuits can result in tragic consequences they should not be undertaken lightly.

Winnipeg Police Physical Fitness – Part III

Making the Argument for on duty workout time

(This was originally intended to be a 3 part series but has now been extended to 4)

 If you are the police union and you want the City to give you something you must first establish that there is a need and secondly, how it will benefit the city.

The recent attempt by the Winnipeg Police Association (WPA) to get the City to give  police officers on duty time to work out was based primarily on the argument that criminals are coming out of jails bulked up and more fit than in the past. The answer according to the WPA is to grant police officer on duty time to work out so they can match the fitness level of the criminals they deal with.

Unfortunately the union failed to provide data to support their position. Although the data probably exists in terms of prisoners weight and musculature upon entering and leaving prison it’s not likely anyone can access it. The union might have considered making its case using other data.  If indeed there is a trend, historical data on assaults against police officers, injuries sustained by police officers resulting from physical confrontations, and Workers Compensation claims would assist in factually establishing what is happening on the street. Making a blanket statement that bulked up criminals coming out of prisons is putting police officers at greater risk  is not a convincing argument without  supporting data.

To support its position the union  brought forward examples of other western Canadian cities that are granting officers on-duty work out time. They mounted a political argument in a context where political arguments (as opposed to evidence based arguments based on data) are ineffectual. They can’t really be blamed though for trying this approach. They just saw the Service use the same approach and obtain funding for a helicopter from the City.

During the helicopter debate the Service  relied heavily on political arguments and anecdotal examples to support its position. The Service cited other cities that use helicopters as a basis for why Winnipeg should get a helicopter. They relied on various quotes from police officers in other cities about how  a helicopter in the air equated to a large number of officers on the ground to bolster their argument. It seemed this was particularly appealing and persuasive for the mayor. 

However, this is not a two-way street. The City decides which issues will be allowed to sail through city hall with an assisting political tail wind, and which will be held up to scrutiny. The Service’s helicopter proposal was largely political (based on wants not needs) but the Service had a benefactor who provided the tailwind. A true economic business case was not asked for nor provided.

That won’t be the case in this instance.  The union  will be required to make a business case (an economic argument) to support its position on the paid work out issue.  They will be required to provide evidence, data, hard facts not just anecdotes. It’s definitely more difficult to make your case when as Bob Seger says you are “running against the wind”.

The last post in this series will look at the  approach the union took on this issue and will examine the differences between positional and interest based bargaining.

Operational Funding for the Winnipeg Police Helicopter

The following is Clause 1 of the Standing Committee Recommendation which deals with the funding of operating costs for the proposed Winnipeg Police helicopter which was approved by Council in January of 2010. 

That subject to approval of new incremental funding from the Province of Manitoba for all ongoing annual operating costs, estimated at $1.3 million in 2010 plus cost increases thereafter, the Winnipeg Police Service be directed to procure a fully equipped Flight Operations Unit together with a hangar to house the unit.  (Emphasis added is mine) 

Several key words are highlighted.  The first is all.  In his attempt to spin this scenario to  best advantage, the Mayor has talked about being agreeable to limiting increases to an agreed upon formula such as the cost of living or consumer price index.  On the surface that may sound reasonable, however, it only limits increases in expenditures to a percentage above the amount spent in the previous year.  It does not prevent the introduction of new expenditures.  The agreement binds the province to all ongoing annual operating costs.  The province would incur  full liability for expenditures it has no control over. 

This approach can be likened to the ‘we’re talking about less than 40 thousand dollars’ argument.  The mayor is essentially borrowing a line from the used car salesman’s handbook:  it’s the ‘if you are willing to spend $1.3 million, surely you’re not going to let this deal get away for a mere 40 thousand’ line.

The point that can not be ignored is that the province is being asked to enter into uncharted waters.  One question that needs to be asked and answered is, how firm is the estimated operating cost figure?  Why does that become important?  Because, based on the wording of the clause passed by Council, if the estimate is off by a couple of hundred thousand dollars the province will be on the hook for that as well. 

In the context of financial agreements and contracts ALL is a very inclusive term and can be a very expensive word.  And to top it all off, the phrase plus cost increases thereafter leaves the door wide open to additional expenditures that could be billed to the province.   The wording is much to loose.  A very careful, detailed and in depth examination of what is included in the estimate of $1.3 million for operating costs is clearly in order. 

To further bolster his argument, the mayor has pulled out and played the ‘lives are at stake’ card.  The fact is, that can be said about almost everything involving policing.  Police policy and procedure on vehicle pursuits, response to domestic violence, and use of force and a myriad of other issues can also put lives at risk – perhaps much more so than having or not having a helicopter.  But none of those issues are currently on the political radar nor are they likely to the subject of discussion as people cast their ballots in the civic election later this year.  The helicopter, on the other hand, is very much on the political radar.  In a political forum using an argument such as ‘lives are at stake’ can be  successfully employed as a  tactic because it strikes a chord with the public.  It is also difficult, if not impossible, to quantify or to either prove or disprove.  How can anyone argue against a move if failure to make the move could cost lives?  One can only hope that citizens (the electorate) see though this sort of gamesmanship and demand decisions and outcomes based on the merits of the issue versus the use of slick political spin tactics and rhetoric.    

If the city is not confident enough in its estimate of operating expenses to commit itself to a firm funding number they need to go back to the drawing board and rework their estimate.  Further, if they are not confident that the addition of a helicopter will produce at least enough savings to offset inflationary cost increases in the future years, then one might conclude that the rationale behind the entire proposal is flawed.  This is a classic ‘buyer beware’ scenario.  The buyer in this case is the province, which means all of us.

Outcomes Based on Evidence

If the  outcome is known in advance don’t fool yourself into thinking you are doing research.  

When police agencies are considering the deployment of new technology, new tools or innovative service delivery approaches, it’s not good enough to cite their use in other jurisdictions as justification to replicate them.  Unfortunately, all too often that is what happens.  Mayors and police chiefs look at what other jurisdictions are doing and fall into the ‘cookie cutter trap’, an approach that assumes that if something works in another jurisdiction it will work here as well.  A review of reports from the jurisdictions that are doing what you might like to do or emulate is substituted for real research.  The conclusions and anecdotal accounts contained in those reports are treated as evidence.    

The fact is, what works in one jurisdiction may not work elsewhere.  Consider the  use of bait cars  to address auto theft.    Some cities that use bait cars claim they are the answer to curbing the auto theft problem.  This may be true if the cars being stolen in a particular jurisdiction are high-end vehicles destined for export.   When the strategy was tried in Winnipeg, it was largely based on recommendations from police agencies in other jurisdictions and the company selling the technology.  Following the expenditure of a significant amount of cash it was determined that based on the unique characteristics of the auto theft problem in Winnipeg, as well as the  climate, bait cars were largely ineffective in Winnipeg and the program was discontinued.    

Another example is the ‘lets recreate Edmonton in Winnipeg’ experiment of the mid-1990’s that saw the proliferation of Service Centers, Community Offices, and Foot Patrol Offices under the guise of community policing, Edmonton style.  At the height of the euphoria (some called it madness), the Winnipeg Police Service was attempting to staff as many as 22 public access locations at a cost of millions of dollars.  These included 6 District Stations and 16 satellite offices.  With the departure of the  Chief (who was from Edmonton) most of those offices were quietly closed down.  The Police Service now operates a total of 7 public access locations, 5 District Stations and 2 satellite offices.  This is another example of a failed and very expensive experiment that can be attributed to the cookie cutter trap. 

Examples abound of failed attempts to superimpose apparently successful approaches and technologies from one jurisdiction to another.  

As argued during the helicopter debate (which was more of an announcement than a debate), evidence based approaches are essential.  In the case of the helicopter, determining  its effectiveness and efficiency from an evidence based perspective involves at a minimum the following steps: 

  • Establish the number of hours the helicopter will be airborne
  • Establish the number of hours that the helicopter will be on stand-by
  • Determine the type of calls for service to which the helicopter will be deployed
  • Call up the historical call for service data
  • Superimpose the deployment template over the historical data
  • Determine the number of instances the helicopter would have been deployed
  • Establish a cost per deployment
  • Establish the benefit or added value that the presence of a helicopter would have provided in the instances where it would have been deployed. 

Take vehicle pursuits as an example.  Police collect data on vehicle pursuits which include the number of pursuits per year, broken down by month, week, day of the week and hour of day.  There is also data about how long pursuits last.  

It would not be difficult or time-consuming to take the historical pursuit data, superimpose the anticipated helicopter flight times and  specify with a reasonable degree of certainty  the number of pursuits that a  helicopter would have been available to deal with in 2008.   

Let’s say for the sake of argument that Winnipeg has 100 vehicular pursuits per year and that the average pursuit lasts about 4 minutes.  This means that unless the helicopter is airborne it will arrive too late to be of use.  Based on an optimistic projection of 1000 hours of flight time, that means the helicopter would be available to aid in perhaps a dozen vehicular pursuits annually.  That’s one a month.  And based on experience in dealing with auto thieves in Winnipeg, I’m not convinced that in those dozen cases the thieves will stop the stolen vehicle, get out and lie on the ground, and wait to be arrested as has been suggested,  just because a helicopter is hovering overhead.  

This means that every time we have a pursuit in the city that ends badly and someone gets up on their soap box and says ‘it would have been different if we had a helicopter’ you need to take a big gulp of reality and say ‘it might have been different perhaps 12 percent of the time’.  The other 88 percent of the time the helicopter would have been sitting on the ground. 

It is research and data that bring reality to the debate.  It is data that elevates it from a political discussion to an evidence based debate and a decision-making process based on evidence 

Anyone who suggests that the recent council decision on the helicopter issue was an example of evidence based decision-making either does not fully understand the concept or has allowed their personal bias on the issue to cloud their judgment.   Anecdotes and rhetoric are not evidence.  

Winnipeg is a city with limited resources.  Our tax dollars need to be spent wisely.  Look at the spending of tax dollars like an investment.  Do we want our tax dollars invested with a money manager who does not do his homework, who does not do research, who simply looks at what other money managers are doing and attempts to mirror their investments and then crosses his fingers and hopes for the best?  

I suppose if you are not a Winnipeg resident and your  municipal tax dollars are going to East St. Paul  this may be less of an issue for you.   For the citizens of Winnipeg, however, it is a real issue.

A Dragons Den Scenario

The long-awaited $75,000.00 helicopter report hit the table of the Standing Policy Committee on Protection and Community Services on January 11th 2010.  Despite the fact that it has been in the works for over six months, it was late in getting there and required a suspension of the rules in order for it to be considered by the Committee.  

Let’s try to imagine for a moment what the discussion would have looked like if the Winnipeg Police Service (WPS)helicopter proposal had been brought before the popular television show, “Dragon’s Den”, instead of Standing Committee:  

WPS: “Good morning Dragons. The WPS is seeking approval for the creation of a Flight Operations Unit.  Other people wiser than you (with access to lots of money) have already decided it’s a good idea and have set aside 3.4 million dollars in the capital budget to purchase a helicopter and build a hangar.  Even wiser people (and with even more money) are looking at funding the 1.3 million dollar annual operating cost of the unit.”   

Dragon 1: “So let me get this straight.  You are not here asking for the money.  You are actually asking us to sanction the creation of a Unit within the Police Service so that you can then spend the 3.4 million dollars that has already been set aside?”  

WPS:  “Well yes, the decision has already been made but if you sanction the creation of the Unit it will make it easier for us to talk the Province into giving us the 1.3 million dollar annual operating cost.”  

Dragon 2:  “Just so that I understand – the City will incur a one time expenditure of 3.4 million for a helicopter that has a life span of, say, 10 years and the Province will pick up operating costs of between 11 and 15 million dollars over that period?”   

WPS: “Well… I guess when it comes right down to it, yes, that is what the numbers say.” 

Dragon 3:  “That sounds like a pretty sweet deal for the City.  How do you plan on talking the province into that one?”  

WPS:  “Once we get your approval it shouldn’t be too difficult.  Since the Province announced a willingness to negotiate a funding agreement in the Throne Speech, we’ve already got one foot in the door.  Besides, this isn’t an economic decision, it’s political.”   

Dragon 4: “You’re in the wrong place; you should be next door in front of Standing Committee on Protection and Community Services.  We only deal with proposals that involve a potential positive return on investment.  Our concern is the bottom line, not politics.”  

Dragon 5:   “But seeing as we have reviewed your proposal, why don’t we ask you a few questions.  It might be a good learning experience for you in the event you ever have to sell a proposal on its economic merit; you know, a proposal that involves an actual cost /benefit analysis.  Why don’t we pretend you are asking us for the money and we’ll ask you some of the questions we would ask people who ask us to invest our money in their proposals.”   

Dragon 1:  “That’s a great idea.  I’ll begin.  Your report says that a helicopter has the potential to save the Police Service money.  You mention reducing the amount of damage caused to patrol units during vehicle pursuits which right now is costing you $400,000.00 per year.  How much do you anticipate you will save in that area alone?” 

WPS:  “We haven’t actually come up with a number.” 

Dragon 1:  “I’m sure you must have looked at the vehicle damage costs in jurisdictions that currently operate helicopters.  You must know what their costs are.  How much could you save – 50%?  Say, $200,000.00?” 

WPS:  “Well perhaps, but we really haven’t run the numbers on that.” 

Dragon 1:  “You should have.  I’ll tell you what; I’ll give you 3.2 million dollars if you agree to make up the remaining 200 thousand from your existing budget based on anticipated savings.  Deal?” 

WPS:  “Actually, we were not planning on using existing budget to fund any of this cost – we were hoping to get all new money for this.  We are not prepared to put any real dollar savings on the table.”  

Dragon 1:  “And for that reason, I’m out.” 

Dragon 2:  “Maybe I can make a deal with you.  In your report you mention a number of scenarios that could yield opportunity savings, in terms of freeing up patrol units.  It you can show me a detailed report that shows projected flight times, a list of the types of incidents that the helicopter will be deployed to, and an estimate of the potential opportunity savings in terms of hours and how those savings will be invested, I’ll fund you.”   

WPS:  “That report has not been prepared yet.” 

Dragon 2:  “For that reason I’m out.”  

Dragon 3:  “Let’s try to make a deal on investing opportunity savings from another angle.  You indicate that the Service is involved in approximately 1,825 ‘containment’ operations annually and that having a helicopter would free up patrol units to perform other duties.  You also mention several other scenarios where patrol units would be freed up.  Here’s my deal:  You make an estimate as to the total number of hours of patrol time that would be freed up service wide, and use that amount of time as an opportunity saving to attack the chronic issue of slow response times to high priority calls by setting a goal for response time reduction, and I’ll give you the money.”  

WPS:  “We can’t do that because we have not run those numbers and are not prepared to commit ourselves to measurable goals that could be difficult to achieve.”     

Dragon 3:  “And for that reason I’m out.” 

Dragon 4:  “I was going to go down the research road and ask you about cherry picking quotes from studies that support your position.  Research is intended to present both sides of the argument on the issue being researched.  I’m no longer convinced that is your interest.  The last quote at the bottom of page 10 says it all and I’ll just paraphrase here:  ‘Don’t think of a helicopter as a tool to achieve specific results, think of it rather as a nice thing to have in and of itself.’   

“I’m out.” 

Dragon 5“What about me, don’t I get a shot at this?” 

Other Dragons:  “Go ahead.” 

Dragon 5:  “I don’t think this is going to fly.  I’m out.” 

Back to reality:  The WPS has brought their proposal before Standing Committee on Protection and Community Services.  It was quickly rubber stamped and sent on to EPC.  There, another rubber stamp is poised to apply the ‘approved’ label.  Then it’s off to council for a vote by the same group that already tucked the 3.4 million into the capital budget.     

And next,  its off to Broadway.  

What would happen if the Province offered to buy the city a helicopter and made the City responsible for the operating costs?  Isn’t that how deals between different levels of government are usually structured?  The senior level provides capital funding, the level delivering the service covers the operating cost.