5 Myths about Police Metrics

Measuring police performance is important, but five common myths make the task more difficult.

ARTICLE | Oct 2, 2017

Because police and fire departments represent a large portion of a local government’s operating budget, managers and elected officials are eager to measure the departments’ performance. But they often struggle to identify the most meaningful metrics to use. In the ICMA webinar “Making Good Data-Driven Decisions by Asking Your Police Chief the Right Questions,” Leonard Matarese busts some common myths about police metrics.

Matarese is a managing partner for the Center for Public Safety Management (CPSM), the exclusive provider of public safety technical assistance to ICMA. Here are 5 myths—and the facts public managers need to know:

Myth 1: Response time is the most important measure of police performance.

The Facts: Response time can be very important in life-threatening and other high-priority situations. But that may be only about 10 percent of calls for service. A burglary in progress may need a rapid, high-priority response, but a bicycle theft does not. Failure to identify and prioritize calls when they are received and dispatched is almost certain to lead to inefficient use of resources. And reviewing “average” response times to all calls is meaningless.

Myth 2: An increase in calls for service requires a corresponding increase in resources for the department.

The Facts: Performance is not directly related to call volume. This myth is based on the assumption that every call for service requires the same amount of time from officers. But that’s not the case. In fact, Matarese estimates that an increase in calls by as much as 50% can require minimal or no increase in resources.

A more meaningful measure upon which to base staffing and budget decisions is workload, not call volume. Workload means the total amount of time officers need to spend on calls for service, including all officers on the scene and not just the primary response unit. Calls do not all require the same amount of time.

Myth 3: The FBI has established a recommendation for officers per thousand population.

The Facts: It’s convenient to assume that there’s a simple way to determine the appropriate size of a police department, and the FBI is frequently cited as the source. But the bureau simply reports per capita information for jurisdictions. It does not make recommendations.

A study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that the ratio of full-time officers per 1,000 population ranges from 1.8 to 2.6, with an average of 2.5. Although this approach is simple to understand and apply, it is not reliable. The level of policing for a city—and the optimal size of its department—depends on many factors, such as average income, percentage of owner-occupied homes, and education levels, and those factors vary from place to place.

In fact, according to Matarese, no correlation has been found between officers per capita and any other factor except cost, and even the International Association of Chiefs of Police agrees.

Myth 4: If crime rates increase, the department should hire more police officers.

The Facts: If crime rates increase, it suggests that the police are ineffective in combatting crime. Adding officers under these conditions essentially provides incentives for poor performance. Far more important is reviewing the strategies and tactics to reduce crime and routinely measuring the effects of those efforts. And, as suggested before, crime rates are not necessarily linked directly to police response; they are influenced by other factors.

Myth 5: When residents have been victims of a crime, they always want a police officer to come to the house.

The Facts: Insurance providers generally require individuals to report property crimes to support their claims. While some residents gain a sense of comfort if a police officer appears in person to take a report, many busy people welcome less time-consuming and schedule-dependent methods of reporting relatively minor crimes (stolen bicycle, purse-snatching). The ability to submit such reports by phone or online can be a welcome alternative.

Getting the Right Data

ICMA periodically offers this presentation, which also examines data and suggests questions to ask about the following:

  • Alternative staffing models.
  • Shift schedules and length.
  • Deployment, patrol, and investigation practices.
  • Other data that a department should collect to measure and manage performance beyond the traditional metrics of response time, arrests, and clearances.
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