July 2, 2019 | View as webpage
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Police officers are used to operating in a court environment, but when it is the court of public opinion, the verdict doesn’t always go the way cops logically expect.

Perception sometimes trumps reality in the eyes of those watching law enforcement. To understand how the public feels about police and what influences their emotions, we need to collect data that measures the emotional temperature of our citizens.

In today’s Leadership Briefing, Chief Joel Shults reviews how call response times impact public perception of police effectiveness, while Chief Cameron S. McLay makes a case for why sentiment analysis is a key component of identifying citizen satisfaction with law enforcement.

What measures does your agency have in place for surveying public opinion about police performance? Email me at nancy.perry@policeone.com.

Nancy Perry
Editor-in-Chief, PoliceOne

P.S. A reliable communications system is vital for effective public safety response to natural disasters and manmade mass casualty events, as well as daily operations. In our latest Digital Edition, sponsored by FirstNet, we look at how law enforcement agencies can transition to using the nationwide public safety broadband network. Download this special report here.

In this issue:

By Chief Joel Shults

Complaints of poor police response time may be taking a back seat to concerns about other aspects of police conduct but getting to that 911 call in a timely manner can be the best community relations tool of all. The question, however, is whether faster arrival on scene affects crime rates, arrest rates and saves lives.

A critical component of response time is emergency vehicle operation, which claimed the lives of a dozen police officers in 2018 who crashed responding to calls – twice the number of officers killed during police pursuits, four times the number murdered by assault with a vehicle and a third of all vehicle-related officer fatalities.

What the research shows

A study recently published by Stanford University researcher Daniel S. Bennett found that, “Complicating any analysis using response times, however, is the fact that different police agencies face very different circumstances, both in the severity of the calls they respond to and in the geographic realities of the areas they serve.”

Bennett found an inverse relationship between response time for emergency calls and non-emergency calls in a multi-city study. This doesn’t sound shocking, given that more severe calls are typically given priority by dispatchers who then must place more recent but less urgent calls at the end of the call queue.

Conventional wisdom is that response time is important, but most studies cast doubt on whether decreasing the time between the notification and arrival of police has little effect on arrest or clearance rates. Bennett, however, quotes a recent study declaring that a 10% increase in response time can have a 5% reduction in solving the crime. That study claims that a new hire for the purpose of faster response times can yield a 170% return of payroll costs in the savings that result from lower crime.

The seminal study on the effectiveness of preventive patrol conducted in the 1970s in Kansas City, Missouri, has been cited as evidence that random patrol patterns have no significant effect on crime rates. An often-overlooked aspect of the study is the finding that response time has a significant effect on measures of public satisfaction with their police departments.

Incidentally, Bennett’s survey showed no significant difference in response time based on the known race or neighborhood of the caller in urgent calls. But, since lags in response time, even on non-emergency calls, have a negative effect on public perception of their police agencies, department leaders should be aware of that reality. As any officer knows who has waited for a back-up officer, ambulance, or fire department’s arrival, wait time is frustrating no matter what the clock says.

Factors complicating response time

The public rarely understands how the dispatching system works. Every communications officer can testify to the anger that callers experience when dispatch is asking screening questions to assess the call and an officer is not at the caller’s door immediately. The assessment and coding of an incoming call, directing the call to the appropriate agency or agencies, assignment of the call to the specific units and that unit’s arrival at the scene (even assuming the responder has an accurate location), all add seconds to the clock.

Police leaders and supervisors may find their strategic deployment of patrol resources has less impact on response time than factors out of their control.

Takeaways for police managers

  • Public satisfaction is based on perceptions and expectations. Increased staffing, building new stations, establishing substations, or adjusting patrol areas can be disruptive and expensive. It may be as productive, from a community relations view, to invest in adjusting public expectations through education than from actually improving patrol response times. Predictive policing crime analysis can be a good to wise resource deployment.
  • Assure your public that no differences in response times are due to race or economic status and have the facts to prove it. If patterns reveal a disparity, the situation should be remedied.
  • When response time becomes highly valued, officers can feel pressured to rush through citizen contacts or avoid officer-initiated activity, both of which negatively affect police efficiency and public confidence.
  • Use caution in measuring response time. Many dispatch systems can’t measure all of the factors involved in response time. For example, if 100% of personnel are on duty for a presidential visit, response times might be slower due to the special activity and fixed posts. Thus, in a study of response time relative to staffing that includes unusual events the averages can be skewed.
  • Response time to major crimes should be examined by separating reports of crimes in progress from crimes discovered. Estimates are that only 25% of serious crimes reported are those actively believed to be occurring at the time of the call to the police. The number of “in-progress” calls that are subsequently determined to be unfounded should be calculated in response times, since their priority at the time of dispatch isn’t changed by the findings after response.
  • Driving fast is dangerous. Improving response time by higher speeds of responding officers is a prospect too deadly to encourage.
  • Investing in non-sworn personnel to handle low-priority calls can be a cost-effective way to respond effectively to citizens requests for service.

Continue the discussion on police response times:

Misses. Clothing disconnects. Close probe spreads. TASER 7 gives officers the confidence to de-escalate dangerous situations with dramatically improved performance in all three of these areas.

Save more lives

By Chief Cameron S. McLay (Ret.)

If you ask most police officers, they will tell you their role is to respond to calls for service, fight crime and arrest violators of the law. Success is typically defined by numbers of arrests, citations and special initiatives. If crime rates are going down, and we are making a lot of contacts, citations and arrests, we must be doing a great job.

However, ask most members of the public, and they will paint a different picture.

They will tell you they want police to be responsive to concerns they have about crime and other issues that negatively impact their quality of life. They want prompt and timely police services when they have been impacted by crime, and they want the police to help them avoid becoming victims in the future. Anytime they come in contact with police, they want to be treated with dignity and respect.

Leading from the front, the New York Police Department has begun exploring mechanisms to incorporate sentiment analysis – data about public perceptions – as a component of its flagship performance management system. They are onto something important. The NYPD knows that it matters how members of the public feel about police services.

Using data to understand community concerns

Sentiment analysis refers to the process of gathering and analyzing the available data so that decision-makers have an informed understanding of each community’s critical issues.

The very best kind of “data” is, of course, the understanding and insights that are the byproduct of trust-based relationships with as diverse a spectrum of the public as possible.

Community surveys and feedback from community outreach efforts are the next best type of sentiment data. These methods provide insights into concerns from members of the public who may be less engaged, satisfied, or trustful of police.

By learning concerns from those less engaged, officials can carefully examine police activities to see if there are opportunities to improve outcomes and enhance trust. Knowledge about community frustrations is vital. Frustration, especially when it arises from perceived injustices and unfulfilled needs, are common precursors of unrest and disorder.

The truth is, however, that there is a level of trust involved in someone simply completing a survey. Those who distrust government, distrust police and feel alienated from the larger community, often will not participate at all.

Through the analysis of publicly available sources of data, such as social media postings, it is often possible to begin to identify those issues of greatest concern to those less engaged through other means.

How police can fulfill community needs

Sentiment analysis is about far more than measuring whether or not people like the police, it is about understanding the underlying community narratives. We seek to identify the unfulfilled needs, underlying fears and resultant frustrations most impacting how people feel about their neighborhoods, and the police officials who are paid to serve them.

By understanding those narratives, officials can earn trust by seeking to help fulfill those needs. Having gleaned insights into those issues of greatest concern, and by being responsive to those concerns, officials can demonstrate caring and responsiveness, and earn a measure of trust in the process.

As we consider the broad range of services police provide, and our role in creating safe and just communities, we should explore performance metrics to measure the broader array of services:

  • Are police effective in creating public spaces where people feel safe?
  • How successful are we at identifying and responding to emerging public order trends?
  • Are we successfully engaging with other community stakeholders to ensure issues impacting on neighborhood quality of life problems are addressed?

Measuring outcomes of policing efforts

When attempting to measure the outcomes of policing efforts, there are three areas of concern regarding public sentiment.

  1. Quality of life: Community members are concerned about crime and disorder, as well as a host of other non-criminal conditions that impact their sense of safety, security and well-being in their neighborhoods and public spaces.
  1. Quality of service: Measuring the outcomes of police efforts also includes obtaining feedback on how people feel about the quality of the services they receive. Do members of the public believe their police to be effective? Do they feel their police are responsive to their needs?
  1. Perceptions of procedural justice: Do people feel the police treat them with dignity and respect, in a fair and unbiased manner, and the police are judicious in their use of coercive authority? Are they restrained in their use of force?

Police performance management systems and our use of data to direct policing efforts have created huge advances in policing as a profession. Many believe programs like CompStat, evidence-based policing and intelligence-led policing have dramatically improved our effectiveness in reducing crime. By incorporating sentiment analysis, it is possible for police officials to further measure the outcomes of our work and see if we have been successful from the perspective of those we serve.

About the author

Chief Cameron S. McLay (Ret.), formerly chief of police for the city of Pittsburgh (PA) Bureau of Police, is principal of TPL Public Safety Consulting and serves as senior adviser for PricewaterhouseCoopers Safe Cities Initiative, an initiative to enable police use of enhanced data analytics and monitoring of social risk and sentiment to improve their performance outcomes and to build public trust and confidence.

Additional resources for cops to connect with their communities:

Be advised

3. Public tweets about police: The Urban Institute collected millions of tweets and employed machine learning to examine how public sentiment toward police has changed both over time and in response to the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. 

2. Humanizing officers: A new podcast hosted by two cops aims to change the public’s perception about the police. In Please Pass the Bacon, Jason Peetz & Chad Webster share stories about the good things both cops and citizens are doing to protect their communities.

1. The role of Hollywood: Positive portrayals of cops in Adam-12 and Dragnet encouraged the public to respect officers. “Could the current flood of bad-cop movies lead to viewers distrusting real police officers?” asks PoliceOne columnist Dan Marcou.

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