While traditional crime has dropped in the western world, complex offenses are increasing. It’s important that public safety agencies explain how and why the mission shift is underway through better transparency.
Sherlock Holmes famously said, “Data, data, data. I cannot make bricks without clay.” While this idea is still a cornerstone of public safety work, a lot has changed since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote those words. Today, the landscape is rapidly evolving as the demand for service increases and the mission scope broadens and becomes more complex.
However, most citizens aren’t aware of these changes. And if the public, media and politicians don’t understand what an agency does, they won’t know whether personnel are performing their duties correctly, or implementing appropriate policies and budgets. That means public safety agencies must leverage data and analytics to build trust and gain support through more transparent operations. In short, it’s no longer enough to say, “Trust us, we’re doing a great job.” These agencies need to include citizens in what they are doing and why.
A changing mission scope impacts all disciplines of public safety — from EMS to fire. One example of this shift can be seen in law enforcement. Complex offenses like human trafficking and cybercrime are becoming more prevalent. These types of cases take extra time and effort to solve, which means investigations use up valuable public safety resources at higher rates. This can be seen in the massive increase in cost, capabilities, time and training needed to secure and manage digital evidence.
At the same time, traditional crimes continue to decrease across the western world, helped, in part, by proactive enforcement and prevention programs. As a result, many municipalities are being pressured to cut public safety jobs and put fewer officers on the street, risking the gains they have made.
Public misunderstandings about an agency’s mission undermine its efforts to engage in proactive programs, build engagement and, ultimately, secure public satisfaction and funding. To combat these misconceptions, agencies should harness data and analytics to increase transparency with stakeholders. Public safety leaders must show both citizens and government officials the demands they face and how they spend their time and money. That way, all parties will have a better understanding of the proper policies.
Police, fire, and emergency medical chiefs can increase support for policies, priorities and technologies by educating the public about what they do using facts and data. This will help them to gain assistance from city officials to invest in those programs.
It’s also crucial to increase engagement with the public, especially when social media can make any move go viral in minutes. Leaders should hear questions and concerns from the people they serve at open forums, via online feedback or through door-to-door canvassing. Once they understand citizens’ knowledge and expectations, officials can gather the necessary data to address them.
Agencies also need to take advantage of the digital resources at their disposal by posting online statistics about safety issues and performance measures for easy, community-wide access. And to remove ambiguity and make information as robust as possible, there should be concrete systems and protocols for tracking operational data.
For example, every emergency service department should have a transparent metric for response times to 911 calls. Does the interaction begin when someone starts dialing the number or when the dispatcher picks up? And all operational data, from the PSAP to patrols, must provide robust security and audit trails to place its intergrity beyond doubt.
Agencies that answer these questions will help the public understand how modern public safety agencies work. Governments around the world increasingly back this effort. The U.S. has implemented the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS); Canada has the Uniform Crime Reporting Survey (UCR); and the U.K. operates the Crime Survey for England and Wales and publishes standardized police-recorded crime data.
Growing demand, increasing complexity, and changing expectations have rapidly transformed public safety in recent years. At the same time, public perception has not kept pace, leading to tensions and dissatisfaction. As agencies continue to adapt to their changing mission, transparency and public understanding will become even more important. By sharing evidence-based insights with stakeholders, such as the public, media and politicians, leaders will increase trust while helping their cities thrive. It doesn’t get more elementary than that, dear Watson.
Simon Welfare-Jervis is the technical director, solutions advisory for Hexagon’s Safety and Infrastructure division in Canada. He has over 24 years of experience in policing, both as a senior sworn officer and a civilian manager. As a detective chief inspector in the U.K., Simon operated in multiple incident and emergency management command roles. In 2006, Simon became the head of strategic analytical services at Calgary Police Service, leading a team in advancing the integration of crime analysis in Calgary’s policing model. In 2014, Simon joined Hexagon, leveraging his extensive knowledge of public safety to specialize in business analysis, solution architecture and product development to ensure the best fit for technologies to industry requirements.