Saturday, July 17, 2010

News Media an Exclusive Playground for Pro-Police Lobby

Oh, people can come up with statistics to prove anything, 14 percent of all people know that.

Homer Simpson

The word “news” is a misnomer that really ought to be substituted with more appropriate language such as, propagandists, advertorialists, fear mongerers , cheap salespersons.

The word “cheap” aptly describes the so-called reporting transmitted in newspapers and airways across Canada, and in particular, in Calgary, Alberta. A daily read of Calgary’s local media highlights the complete lack of investigative reporting by second rate authors and purveyors of misinformation or half-truths.

Reporting about budget cuts to the Calgary Police Service underscores my point.

Following this story like shark’s tracking a chum line, the news media has appropriately informed Calgarians about anticipated budget cuts to Calgary’s Police Service, but in so doing, it has apparently been baited by self-serving informers who use news as a platform to advance their particular cause. Rather than providing a balanced perspective, replete with information so that citizens can determine whether their tax dollars ought to be slashed from the police budget, the “news” has seemingly become a near exclusive medium for the police lobby to campaign for public support. A daily read of Calgary’s local newspapers – the Calgary Sun and Calgary Herald – supports the argument that these mediums are little more than sounding boards for various preferred lobby groups such as the CPS.

Now, I am not saying the news should stop speaking with these various groups. Rather, I am saying they should stop blindly reporting information without conducting a measure of real investigative journalism.

For example, if one was to blindly accept Police statistics that the reported 32% reduction in property crime was solely due to increased numbers of beat patrol cops it would be easy to feel trepidation about the impact budget cuts would have on public safety. These statistics, however, could be highly misleading.

Just for a moment, let’s rewind the clock to December 9th, 2008 when the City of Calgary revoked the business license for the downtown Cecil Hotel. Now fast-forward just a little more than a month, to Mayor Dave Bronconnier’s comments reported by the CBC on January 22nd, 2009 where he informed us that since the City’s 10.9 million dollar purchase of the Cecil Hotel, crime in the area dropped by 85%.

In that same article, Louise Gallagher, a spokesperson for the Calgary Drop-In Centre aptly commented that since the Hotel’s closure drug dealing and other crime may not be “as visible” but it’s still there. To be fair, Police Chief Rick Hanson also recognized the “visibility” issue when he said, “we’re not naive enough to think the crime has gone away”.

For the purpose of this exercise, let us begin by looking at Mayor Bronconnier’s use of statistics.

Essentially, he lauds the City of Calgary’s decision to revoke the notorious Hotel’s business license and then justifies the 10.9 million dollar use of municipal tax dollars to purchase the property by suggesting the expenditure was worthwhile because it resulted in an 85% reduction in crime in the area. This is certainly a prima facie compelling statistic.

During this same period, the Calgary Police Department was lobbying for more public money to fund additional manpower and police initiatives for 2010 and 2011.

This lobby continued in 2010 with the CPS ringing the public safety alarm in response to a looming 5% budget cut resulting in a 14.8 million dollar shortfall to police coffers. According to police, this cut will result in 120 fewer police, tabulated as 55 current positions and 65 positions in 2011.

A recent ad “in support of the Calgary Police” argues that increased police presence has resulted in a decline in drug activity and other crime on Calgary streets. The ad suggests a 32% reduction in property crime, a 21% reduction in person crimes (whatever that means) and a 26% reduction in disorder events. The purpose of the ad is to garner public support to protect the police budget.

Again, on the surface, these statistics are compelling, but in the words of Homer Simpson, “statistics can be used to prove anything, 14% of all people know that”.

Well, I am not saying these statistics are incorrect or even necessarily inappropriate. What I am saying is that on the information provided, I cannot reasonably decide for myself whether these statistics are misleading or inappropriately used. For example, I have a difficulty reconciling a reduction in drug crimes or a 32% reduction in property crimes with the alleged 85% reduction in crime in the area of the former crime hotspot, the Cecil Hotel.

As a lifelong resident of Calgary, I take “citizen’s notice” that the Cecil Hotel was nothing short of a visible cesspool where a plethora of criminal offences were committed in plain view of anybody who stood and watched for long enough. In fact, when my mountain bike was stolen from outside the epicentre of Calgary’s Red Mile on 17th Avenue south west – Melrose – I simply attended at the Cecil Hotel and within about 15 minutes of scanning the inhabitants, found the bike at the liquor store in the parking lot. It was in plain view. I didn’t need Magnum P.I., Starsky and Hutch or any other brand of super detective to locate my stolen property.

While merely walking the area, I observed a number of individuals who were clearly intoxicated in a public place (a possible “disorder event”); other persons possibly dealing drugs or engaged in what appeared to be prostitution (a possible “person crime”).

This leads to my second point: eliminating a plain view crime hotspot provided an easy mechanism for claiming crime reduction, for the alleged criminal activity is no longer visible and thus not as easily tabulated. Put another way, the alleged reduction in certain types of crime, such as drug trafficking, may be closely connected to the elimination of a high crime hot spot where such activity was easily observed.

Doubtless, police patrolling in District 1 (downtown) conducted a high number of criminal investigations and arrests in the area of the Cecil. In a sense, despite the Cecil’s reputation and the problems associated with the area, it acted as a kind of crime containment where investigations were logically directed and arrests often made. The activity ordinarily conducted in the neighbourhood of the Cecil Hotel has likely distributed elsewhere, and in so doing, may be more difficult to detect.

The point is, there is a close connection between crime statistics, crime reporting and crime detection.

The Cecil provided fertile grounds for crime reporting and detection, the reduction of which logically corresponds to a statistical reduction in criminal activity.

To say the reduction (or the level of reduction) is necessarily caused by increased police presence may be just about as specious as saying the existence of limestone on City streets protects citizens from being invaded by wildlife.

Again, dialogue in a Simpson’s episode illustrates the point.

After a single bear wandering into town has drawn an over-reaction from the residents of Springfield, Homer stands outside his house and muses, “Not a bear in sight. The Bear Patrol is working like a charm!”

Lisa Simpson responds: “That’s specious reasoning, dad. By your logic, I could claim that this rock keeps tigers away.”

Confused, Homer responds: “Hmm; how does it work?”

Lisa: “It doesn’t work; it’s just a stupid rock!”

Homer: “Uh-huh.”

Lisa: “… but I don’t see any tigers around, do you?”

Homer: “Lisa, I want to buy your rock…”

The point is, increasing the police budget has not necessarily resulted in decreased crime (at least to the extent claimed by the police lobby), just as eliminating the Cecil Hotel has not necessarily decreased the total amount of overall crime in Calgary – for the Cecil crime has probably re-distributed to other communities. But eliminating a visible hotspot may have impacted the number of crimes “reported” thus creating a fallacious statistic pertaining to the number of crimes committed; thus begging the question: has increased police presence really resulted in a meaningful decrease in crime?

In a 2009 article titled “Credit where credit is due: lobby for more police truth ruse” I mused over the police lobby for additional officers.

To that end, I stated:

I think it is important for citizens to understand a couple of realities. Many years ago, I was a Crown prosecutor, working out of an office in Rocky Mountain Plaza. From my 15th floor vantage point, City Hall was to the South, the old Provincial Courthouse was across the street to the east, and just a couple blocks west was the district 1 police station and the Andrew Davidson building. The epicentre for criminal justice was located within just a few blocks of the Cecil Hotel. I have no trouble saying, the area where my office was located was definitely one the seediest areas I have EVER been in.

From my 15th floor vantage point, I could actually observe a lot of rather suspicious behaviour -- both on the sidewalk beside my building, in Olympic Plaza (right across the street from City Hall) and on the streets just one block east of the District 1 police station.

What is my point?

Despite the sheer presence of law enforcement officials and police, there is little doubt that crime was exceedingly high in that area. Exceedingly high within a couple city blocks of Calgary’s biggest police station, where the numbers of police either patrolling streets, attending the district office or going to court was monumental. I am sure anybody who worked in that area before the closure of the Cecil would not disagree. From this I surmise that the sheer numbers of police, government and law enforcement apparently had little impact on the criminal element.
So, back to the question: is crime really decreasing in Calgary’s downtown because of a higher police presence?

To be fair, I think the answer is probably yes. But the next question is how much? How much of it is attributed to a heightened police presence and how much is attributed to other things? Is Calgary’s top police lobbyist taking credit where it’s not due?

Suffice it to say, I continue to have difficulty resolving the question.

Unfortunately, our Calgary media is so devoid of meaningful investigative reporting that we cannot count on it to inform us in any meaningful way. I am left to feel as if we are in an informational abyss where fast food reporting by indolent news agencies leaves us susceptible to being duped by lobby groups using statistics out of context to advance their agenda.

Speaking about context, the message about police cutbacks has been delivered in a rather interesting way. Phrased by Chief Hanson et al, the 5% reduction will result in 120 lost positions, including 65 positions slated for 2011. Analyzed properly,however,of the alleged 120 positions in jeopardy, only 55 of those positions directly pertain to the time period of the so-called crime reduction; for the 65 additional officers budgeted for 2011 had yet to start walking the beat. So, the police haven’t really lost 120 positions; they have lost 55.

This begs the question, how many of those 55 officers how many were assigned to beat patrol? How many of those officers were placed on City streets to allow others to engage in administrative duties? How many officers currently on administrative duties or engaged in special projects could be re-diverted back to City streets?

As a citizen, I can say in no uncertain terms, the Calgary Police appear to be using their additional resources to conduct a form of armed tax collection; for the sheer number of speed traps and traffic patrols appears to have increased dramatically. In my experience our police department appears to be highly concerned about traffic safety in areas outside Calgary’s jurisdiction, for the police conduct speed trap enforcement on the borders exiting the City on a quotidian basis. Is there really a connection between controlling traffic exiting the City and public safety “in" Calgary?

How many of the 65 new officers were slated for traffic duty? How many were slated for beat patrol? How many were slated for other tasks not associated with street presence?

The point is, the police lobby tells us they are “losing” 120 officers, when in fact, they are really only losing 55.

Now I see that a lobby group has actually paid $10,000.00 for an advertisement in the Calgary Herald “in support of the police”. Let’s take a look at the group responsible for paying for the ad.

Calgary Crime Stoppers is an agency sponsored by a number of groups, including Penn West Energy and the Alberta Government.

The ad was also funded by the Calgary Downtown Association (CDA). The CDA is a group consisting of downtown businesses interested in supporting the vitality of Calgary’s downtown core – certainly a laudable objective. For the purpose of this article, it is interesting to recognize that Keith Luft of Penn West Energy sits on the board of directors. The CDA’s partners consist of the Calgary Herald (the newspaper where the ad was posted) and the City of Calgary (the municipality whose Mayor is presently advocating to increase the police budget).

By the way, Penn West Energy also funded the ad.

I am not a reporter, let alone an investigative journalist, but I was nevertheless able to find a number of rather incestuous connections between the various groups funding the advertisement in support of the police. I located this information in just under 15 minutes.

The point is, the news media has arguably become so tragically dependent upon scraps left behind from its various primary sources (such as the Government or as some of us like to call it, "the Regime") that it either fails or declines to engage in even a minimal amount of true journalism designed to inform public debate.

It would be interesting for somebody to more fully investigate the police budget. How are funds really being used? Are they being spent on police officers or on other projects not highlighted for public attention. By way of example, in recent months the Alberta Government has dramatically decreased Legal Aid funding and in response, Legal Aid has changed its financial eligibility requirements and significantly cutback on certificates for funding lawyers to represent citizens in need. The Government has underscored an approximate 30% increase in lawyer costs associated with certificates, but they have not highlighted the fact that Legal Aid infrastructure (such as costs for leasehold improvements) increased by in excess of 1500% percent; that special projects increased by upwards of 120%; that there has been stupendous increases in other departments within Legal Aid having little or nothing to do with lawyers or the people Legal Aid was designed to help.

What if the Calgary Police Budget was managed in ways similar to Legal Aid? What if the police spent millions of tax dollars engaged in special projects or buying expensive motor vehicles and other equipment not reasonably required to conduct either good or efficient police work?

I mean, it was reported that the Calgary Police Department sent 150 officers to the G-20 in Ontario for the purpose of providing security. They sent 75 officers to the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia. But when it comes to spending tax payer dollars to police our growing metropolis, the Chief claims the alleged loss of 55 officers is going to have an impact on public safety?

A convenient commment.

Though I appreciate what I am about to say suffers from its own logical frailties, if Calgary can afford to send 150 officers to Ontario, they arguably do not really need the 120 officers purportedly slated to be cutback to a reduced budget.

It is worth recognizing the Calgary Police Service represents the single largest expense for the municiplaity, so why should they be any different than any other Government department required to cutback in tough times?

Will there really be any meaningful impact on public safety? I am sure in 2011 the police lobby will present statistics to claim it so.

Unfortunately, it appears we cannot really count on our news media to expose these types of issues or to inform public debate.

David G. Chow
Calgary Criminal Lawyer
Calgary Criminal Defence Lawyers