'Ridiculous' time-wasting calls behind stressful workload, say some Calgary police officers

Some Calgary police officers say responding to "ridiculous," time-wasting calls is one of the biggest reasons they feel overworked and understaffed. They say they've become a catch-all for any citizen complaint and its time to address this problem.

Members say redirecting non-police related calls would ease workload, limit need for more officers

Calgary 911 communications officers receive emergency and non-emergency calls for police, fire and EMS. (City of Calgary)

Some Calgary police officers say responding to "ridiculous," time-wasting calls is one of the biggest reasons why front-line members feel overworked, understaffed and frustrated. 

After CBC News initially reported on what some officers described as a workplace in "crisis," a number of other Calgary police officers reached out to say they are being swamped by calls — and hiring more officers won't necessarily solve the problem.

CBC News spoke with these officers confidentially because they fear repercussions from their bosses.

"We attend anything and everything," said a veteran police officer who spent years on the street before moving into a specialty unit.

"My 10-year-old won't get off the computer; my neighbour is chipping ice from the front drain, leaving it on the road to melt; [my neighbour's] leaf blower is loud and annoying; a black car was speeding on the Deerfoot 30 [minutes] ago, without providing any licence plate, and worries someone will get hurt; my neighbour keeps parking in front of my house," he said.

"These are only a few of the ridiculous calls the CPS is now required to attend," he added.

He says that despite no longer working as a street-level constable, he still hears complaints from his co-workers. 

Just the other day, he says, he got a message titled "another job for the CPS parenting unit" that included a screen shot of the calls waiting for response.

One of the calls was from a parent of a 21-year-old man who asked police to come discipline his son.

"Now imagine calls like this, day in and day out. There's where your frustration is coming from," he said.

Another experienced officer says it wasn't always this way, but over time he's seen a change in the types of calls police are expected to respond to.

"Fire go to fire, EMS go to people who are sick, police go to everything," he said.

Some Calgary police are frustrated by the non-police related calls they are expected to attend during their shift, taking them away from police-related matters. This photo was sent to CBC News to illustrate an example. (Submitted)

Call centre evolution

The Calgary Police Service used to run its own communication centre, staffed with civilians who answered calls from citizens and dispatched to sworn members. A staff sergeant and a senior communications manager supervised the call-takers.

CPS says that in order to save money, its call centre was merged with fire and EMS in 2007. After that, police emergency and non-emergency calls were handled by the Public Safety Communications (PSC) centre.

The same civilians worked in this tri-service model, but oversight by the Calgary Police Service was eliminated.

A few years later, a senior police officer was brought in to help field police-related calls.

The PSC was then changed to Calgary 911 in 2016, again with no police oversight. CPS says it was a cost-savings move. Instead, each district sergeant is supposed to go through the list of pending service calls to determine the type of response.

However, many of the officers who spoke to CBC News confidentially say that's not happening as much as it should because the sergeants are too busy.

The union that represents the communications officers within Calgary 911 says that as the police call centre evolved over the years, so did the ability of communications officers to act as gatekeepers.

"What was a police matter, what wasn't a police matter, when you send a car, when you don't — there were policies in place so it was relatively straightforward when you would or would not send a police unit to a call," said Karen Stoshnof, a spokeswoman for the union representing call-takers, on the way the system worked previously.

"There was much latitude back then. Today, it's different."

This is an example of the scripted cards read by the communications officers at Calgary 911 showing they must ask at the end of a call if the caller would still like to see police. (Submitted)

Stoshnof says that at one time, when the call centre was run by CPS, communications officers followed a policy and procedural manual but were able to dig more deeply into the conversation in order to understand the problem.

These days, Stoshnof says, everything is scripted. She says call-takers must follow a list of questions printed out on a card and the questions vary depending on the issue.

Instead of the latitude of telling the caller 'you don't need the police,' that doesn't really happen so much anymore. It's now our people asking the caller 'do you want to see the police today?'- Karen Stoshnof

"Instead of the latitude of telling the caller 'you don't need the police,' that doesn't really happen so much anymore," she said. 

"It's now our people asking the caller 'do you want to see the police today?'"

Stoshnof says that when the scripted cards were brought in several years ago, CPS also changed its protocols requiring the communications officers to ask citizens if they want to see a police officer at the end of each call.

"Because most people are going to think 'yeah, like I do want to see somebody, I feel better talking to somebody in person,' and that's what  the police service decided they wanted," said Stoshnof.

"That is definitely causing a glut."

Prior to the change in the service's protocols, she says, call-takers might have been able to resolve an issue by phone, through a referral, or by sending the caller to the nearest district office at their convenience.

Now, she says, police make that decision, often in person.

Stoshnof says the downside for citizens is that they can wait for days to get a response because police are just so busy.

Deputy Chief Ray Robitaille says CPS needs to analyze the nature of calls before making any changes. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

Prioritize calls

Management within Calgary 911 concedes it's an issue and is looking at ways to divert these lower priority calls away from front-line police officers to more appropriate agencies.

"There are some calls that could be handled differently," said Doug Odney, commander of Calgary 911. 

"Whether it's to 311 or to bylaw or to other agencies to assist with those types of events, I agree we have to do some more work with Calgary Police Service to make sure that citizens are getting the proper response. But it needs to be the appropriate response."

Odney says Calgary 911 is changing its phone system to better track all of its calls. It is also changing the way it processes calls to prioritize them more efficiently.

"Is there more work that we can do to make sure that citizens' incidents are responded to more appropriately? Yes, absolutely."

Odney says Ottawa faced a similar problem with dispatching calls that weren't police-related matters before coming up with a solution which Calgary is currently studying.

He says Ottawa's emergency call centre now redirects calls that don't meet the 911 or non-emergency criteria to another area within its call centre where staff take reports, provide information and referrals, freeing up the emergency communications officers to handle the higher priority calls.

"So that's work that we're looking at right now," said Odney.

Front-line patrol members say they have to waste valuable time on 'ridiculous' calls that could be dealt with differently. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

CPS is proposing to go to fewer non-emergency calls, such as non-injury crashes, in order to free up more front-line officers as part of its latest budget proposal to city council. The police budget is still pending approval.

But as for the specific complaints about having to go to "time-wasting" calls, Deputy Chief Ray Robitaille says CPS doesn't have any evidence that is happening. So far, he says, he's heard anecdotes.

"I absolutely understand and agree that we need to have a deeper dive into this issue so that we can see where the data is, because we're hearing that with the loss of sergeants out of there (dispatch), officers are now going to calls that they shouldn't," said Robitaille.

CPS has seen its calls spike over the past few years.

Six years ago, 299,918 calls came through dispatch, compared with 379,400 in 2017. But that's a fraction of the service's total call volume. They also get requests online, at the district office or in person. 

Robitaille says calls are not only increasing in number but in complexity, too.

"Oftentimes, it takes a police officer on the ground at the call having those discussions, looking at the scene to make that judgment call, that 'OK, it's nothing more serious than a bylaw call,'" said Robitaille.

Citizens' responsibility

CPS is in the process of hiring more officers to try to boost the number of front-line patrols to deal with mounting calls and increasing demands on the job.

But according to one of the officers who spoke with CBC News, he doesn't think that will resolve the underlying issue.

"To me, the service right now is so scared of saying, actually, 'you don't need a police officer.' They'd rather hedge on the side of caution and send us and let us tell the person, rather than say 'we can't help you,'" he said.

At some time you have to be a parent, at some time you have to tolerate a neighbour that blows leaves on your grass. It's just, it's just part of life.

In the end, he says, providing an "all-to-everyone" type of service is hurting morale.

"Every time we go to work, the board is full and full of calls. Before we even start, we're kind of on our back foot."

Another officer says Calgarians need to realize police can't solve every problem.

"At some time you have to be a parent, at some time you have to tolerate a neighbour that blows leaves on your grass. It's just, it's just part of life."

One officer even goes so far to say that if it's not an emergency situation, Calgarians should take a few minutes to ask themselves if they are overreacting before making a call to police.

"Do police really need to go? There are thousand of people every day going through dumpsters in the city," they said.

"I think most people, if they just gave themselves 10 minutes to kind of reflect, I think they would realize this is not something that police, or not something that they would even want their police service to waste their money or resources on."

Other patrol members say they're simply uncomfortable responding to calls outside of their training — for example, being asked for legal advice in a child custody dispute.

Communications officers handle huge volumes of calls every day. (City of Calgary)

Or disciplining a child in the throes of a major tantrum.

"And you literally show up and explain for an hour that there is nothing we can do, it's not in our powers. A lot of times police don't even have kids when they show up to these calls," said one officer.

Better gatekeeping

Collectively, the officers who spoke to CBC News agreed something needs to change, whether it's Calgarians' expectations, CPS oversight, scope of police response, a call-taker's authority or dispatch oversight.

One officer says he has been around since CPS used to run its own dispatch centre, pre-2007.

He believes the old model worked better.

"If we go back and look at what we did right back then, and give our dispatchers and call-takers that authority and that knowledge base to say we trust you to do the right thing and we trust that the calls that are put on our board are the right calls, which they used to be, I think that would alleviate a lot of the issues," he said.

A spokeswoman for the union representing the call-takers says regardless of who is in charge, or where the centre is housed, it's still the communications officers who are the initial gatekeepers.

And it appears, she says, that while the police front-line members want the communications officers to do a better job of screening calls, that's not what the upper management within the Calgary Police Service wants.

"What really impacts the street is the decisions by upper management to tell Calgary 911 'if a citizen wants a car, that's what we want,'" said Stoshnof.

Stoshnof says the service could change its requirements for the way it wants low priority calls handled, and then give this directive to Calgary 911, because right now the communications officers are only following the service level agreement.

She says that would mean allowing experienced call evaluators to veer off the scripted cards to better assess an individual's issue.

Other police officers say it's not a failure in call-taking but a failure in call supervision by the district sergeants. They are the ones who are supposed to weed through the calls once they've been put through by dispatch and decide what is a police matter or not.

Robitaille says that, regardless, the first step is to analyze the nature of these "ridiculous" calls.

The next step would be to consult with the police commission to see whether these questionable calls still fall within the mandate of the CPS.

"And if it is, then our options of whether we do it or not are pretty clear: that's our job," said Robitaille.


Colleen Underwood has been a reporter/editor with CBC news for more than 10 years filing stories from across southern Alberta for radio, television and online. Follow her on Twitter @cbccolleen.