The Ottawa Police Service has sent a memo to its call centre personnel asking them to "strongly encourage" people to hang up and report a growing list of crimes online — despite concerns that may lead to overworked officers without reducing crime rates.
The "general order" from Chief Charles Bordeleau suggests that once a caller's police report meets the criteria of an acceptable online complaint, "the call centre agents and communications centre analysts will strongly encourage callers to [visit] the OPS web page."
The types of crimes members of the public can report on the force's website include theft, lost property, mischief or damage, drug complaints, fraud, and hate crimes.
Violent crimes cannot be reported online, and must be dealt with by the call centre.
The memo, obtained by CBC News, continues: "The standard response should be: 'Our policies have recently changed and reports such as yours are now submitted on-line at ottawapolice.ca.'"
It further states that the general order only applies to calls from individuals, and that businesses can be given the option to "report online or by phone."
Should the caller refuse to go online, the memo directs call centre staff to take the report.
Directive 'a bit concerning.'
While Ottawa police have offered online reporting to the public for a couple of years, both the head of the Ottawa Police Association and a University of Toronto expert say they haven't seen much evidence that the service offers better outcomes for victims of crime.
Online reporting is being offered by most large police services, but it's rare to see a force actively divert people away from calling in reports, said Erick Laming, a PhD candidate in criminology at the U of T.
"The language they are instructed to use makes it sound like they only have the option to report it online," said Laming. "That's a bit concerning."
Laming said one of the problems with studying the effectiveness of online police reporting is the lack of statistics about crime resolution available to the public. He said that makes evaluating Ottawa's expansion of online reporting difficult.
Laming noted that Winnipeg's police force has boasted a 38 per cent increase in online reports from 2015 to 2016, but that statistic offers no evidence as to whether those complaints were successfully resolved.
While online reporting helps police gather data to establish crime trends, said Laming, it's perhaps limited in helping you actually get your bike back, for instance.
"When you use the system to report online, you may think maybe something's going to be done about it quicker," he said. "But that's not necessarily the case."
The Ottawa Police Service has not yet responded to questions about the new directive.
U.S. police service scraps online altogether
Matt Skof, the president of the Ottawa Police Association, said he's concerned the expansion of online reporting may be seen as a fix for what he calls the department's "staffing crisis" and may not lead to better outcomes for crime victims.
At least one U.S. force used a related justification as the reason for scrapping its online reporting project this spring.
In a March blog post, the police service in Vancouver, Washington explained that in the seven months they'd been offering the service, the "end result" was a major workload increase for staff responsible for reviewing and approving the reports.
"Common issues included miscategorization of crimes by the reporting party, which required revision by department personnel; missing narrative information that required follow-up; and crimes that should not be reported using the online system being entered, which required follow up by department personnel," the police force said.
Skof said that adding new burdens to a police force that's already short officers would be the worst case scenario.
He said his association wants to know whether online reporting is saving officers' time — or whether they're tied up dealing with inaccurate information or poorly-written reports.
Hate crimes considered minor?
Laming, meanwhile, has another concern: the appearance of hate crimes on the Ottawa list.
Hate crimes are not mentioned in the memo, but appear on the police service's website among the list of crimes people can report online.
"This seems to be a first," said Laming.
While that decision could ease the "stigma or shame" attached to reporting possible hate crimes, Laming said other Canadian police services have made a point of explicitly excluding such crimes from online reporting.
Toronto police, for instance, urge people to call them directly about criminal acts that are potentially motivated by hate — as well as for incidents like domestic violence or complaints about emotionally-disturbed people.