Is law enforcement effective in the face of technological advances, globalization of crime and increased scrutiny? Entering my third decade in policing, I had an epiphany about how much our profession has changed since I learned to write reports on manual typewriters in my 1989 recruit class.   

In the past 20 years, law enforcement has gone from paper reports, white out, and filing cabinets, to body cams and a digitally-connected universe. Most people in North America use smart phones that connect them immediately with information that we could not have imagined in previous decades. Police officers must now assume they are being recorded at all times  Actions LEOs take in the street could very well be playing in the media before they finish writing reports.

Over my 24-year career, I have had a front-row seat to the changes in community demands, the policing context, and law enforcement’s responses.

In 2000, an arson crisis in my jurisdiction led to the creation of an integrated team pairing police officers with fire commissioner investigators.  I was one of the first members of Winnipeg’s Integrated Child Exploitation Unit, pairing officers from assorted agencies to develop innovative strategies to prosecute people for Internet-based child exploitation. In 3 years in the Anti-Crime Tactical Unit, I ran complex investigations taking down organized crime rings.

I realized first-hand how dramatically the job has changed. A search warrant often requires a 40 to 80-page affidavit, basically outlining an entire investigation.   Twenty years ago, obtaining search warrants for drugs, weapons, and criminal evidence occurred with a one-paragraph affidavit.

LEO’s once had automatic credibility in court.  Nowadays, officers have to establish their credibility every time they testify. Often, if it is not in an officer’s notes, it is presumed to have not happened.

For 3 years, I was assigned as a duty officer overseeing all front-line police operations in an agency of 1500 sworn.   Changing societal conditions draw increasingly on police resources.  Since police are available 24/7/365, they are tending to take on other agency’s responsibilities during a time of diminishing budgets. Law enforcement spends massive resources chasing chronic runaways and apprehending the mentally ill.

All of these increasing demands have occurred alongside increasing administrative requirements that keep front line officers from doing their core duties, patrolling and keeping communities safe. Today’s social problems are too complex and far-reaching for any one agency to manage alone. Police have to partner more than ever with other government and non-government service agencies, sharing responsibility for these far-reaching problems.  A more collaborative relationship would help reduce the increasing strain on law enforcement.

Law enforcement has a growing need for partnerships. Police have a unique role in society. They can use their credibility and support communities, acting as change agents, bringing all the stakeholders together and coordinating team responses to complex social issues.

This is the work I am involved in now; crime prevention through social development. I worked in the catch and release program for so many years, catching criminals just to see them out the next day and re-offending. Now, the only approaches that resonate are ones which attack crimes root causes.

Law enforcement must be proactive and intervention based, striving to prevent victimization.  Current high recidivism and increasing reliance on prisons to keep society safe is not sustainable.

Canadian police agencies are experiencing significant changes in the new millennium. Criminal sophistication, advancing technology, and evolving societal demands continually challenge police officers and administrators in new ways. Terrorism, organized crime, Internet-based child exploitation, human trafficking, and a host of other borderless crimes have globalized law enforcement, requiring interagency cooperation and information and resource sharing on a level never seen before.

In response, police services are undergoing fundamental shifts in strategic planning. They are being challenged to replace long- practiced reactive tactics with proactive, evidence-based strategies that target the root causes of social problems and not just the symptoms. Increased accountability is driving innovation as individual officers, and whole systems, adapt to new challenges almost daily.

Mass retirements are changing the demographic makeup of police organizations, causing a loss of critical corporate knowledge and forcing a new focus on recruitment, retention, and mentoring. Effective managers are now aware of dynamics of age, gender, and ethnic diversity that were unheard of twenty years ago. Physical distance and communication barriers are collapsing so quickly that we may barely recognize their impact or know how to respond effectively. Police, and all public servants, must be vigilant in dealing with the change that is occurring all around us. We must be aware of technological advances and their implications and be prepared to take full advantage of them rather than being overwhelmed.

In the past 20 years, Canadian policing has changed from a culture of change resistance to a culture of continuous innovation and increased transparency, often brokering change with others in the broad spectrum of service agencies. While criminals operate in an increasingly borderless and globalized world, without the constraints that affect the police – such as the need to act lawfully, respect jurisdictions, and work with limited resources administered by bureaucracy – they are still not winning the war.

New frontiers of policing lie in increasing community engagement and approaches that can help resist the tendency to revert to reactive strategies of the past. New methods of analysis and reflective practice hold the potential for helping police agencies to remain aligned with changing community needs and continuously adapt for optimum effectiveness.

My book, Canadian Policing in the 21st Century: A Front Line Officer on Challenges and Changes, describes all of the changes that I have seen in our ever-evolving profession.  Things aren’t so different on my side of the border than what American LEOs experience each day.

My observations about police culture, technological impacts and resulting accountability, and shifting strategies all speak to changes we have seen globally in the policing profession. My hope is that all LEOs can learn from my experiences.  I also hope that my book will bring awareness to other service providers with whom we work. Finally, I hope the public can gain understanding of the ever-increasing challenges of policing.

The evolution from manual typewriters used in 1989 to the connected, globalized, digital world of 2012 does not redefine the ageless fight between good and evil. It only changes the weapons and the battleground.

Staff Sergeant Bob Chrismas, MPA has served the Winnipeg Police Service for 24 years. He previously served for 5 years as a Manitoba Sheriff’s Officer.  Bob also served for several years with the Canadian military as well as within Canada’s prison system.  He is a University of Manitoba Doctoral candidate in Peace and Conflict Studies. Bob is married with four children.

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