Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Catch and release - Swimming upstream in Vancouver

Vilfredo Pareto's 80/20 Principle

What does a 19th century Italian economist have to do with neighborhood safety? Consider Vilfredo Pareto's principle that the majority of a phenomena can be explained by a minority of causes. Sometimes called the 80/20 Rule, criminology has long demonstrated a small number of chronic offenders cause a significant portion of crime.

Reflecting on my Comstat and police leadership blogs recently, I came across a fascinating news documentary Pareto would have loved. It's called Lock Em Up.

It's about competent policing and quality leadership in an unlikely place - Vancouver, BC. I say unlikely because, with all my harping on the skid row tragedy in that lovely city, one might assume I blame the cops or their chief. Not so. In Vancouver at least, I don't think that's the case. Jim Chu, Vancouver's Chief and their Chronic Offender Unit - COU - have put research to good tactical use. Similar to the Winnipeg auto theft solutions project I mentioned two years ago, this seems like a winning ticket (though, as you'll see below, in Vancouver there is a number missing from their lottery ticket).


Property crime is rarely seen as a serious matter, yet it comprises 75 percent of all crime. In 2009 Vancouver had over 21,000 thefts and 5,000 break and enters. As Pareto might warn us, chronic offenders with multiple offenses cause a significant number of those crimes.

What is a chronic offender? Vancouver defines a Chronic as someone with over 39 convictions (that's a lot of convictions). There are also Superchronics, a group with over 79 convictions each. That's convictions, not crimes. They committed far more than that. One offender interviewed in the film below says he has broken into well over 1,000 homes.

How many chronic offenders are there and how many property crimes to they cause in Vancouver?

The COU and the Vancouver Police planning section report that over 5 years, 379 chronic offenders were charged with over 12,000 offenses, roughly 10% of all yearly property crimes. It is of course much higher since chronic offenders were not charged for all of their crime, only a small number. The reality is probably more like 25% - an educated guess I'm sure both Pareto and COU detectives would confirm.

Vancouver Police report, 2008

In other words, out of a half million people only 379 cause between 10% to 25% of all property crime in Vancouver! Their research report is available for review by clicking here.

If there was ever a case where chronic offenders should be removed to protect us, this is it. Remove them for drug treatment, incarceration, or both. But, get them off the street.

What do police do in Vancouver? Since a small number of chronic offenders create a significant portion of crime, police strategies target habitual offenders to break that cycle. Vancouver Chief Jim Chu is behind the approach.

Criminological research, where it is done well, is fairly clear. It shows that arresting Chronics and getting them off the street works, at least until the courts release them again. That's the missing link in this chain - the Vancouver court system, one of the most lenient in Canada. Stunningly, their study showed length of incarceration actually got shorter as the Chronics committed more crime. Worse still, over half of the Superchronics received less than a month in jail - and 25% of the Superchronics received less than a day in jail.


In short, cops caught them so judges could release them. Talk about frustrating! The report says:

as these offenders tend to specialize in low‐level property offences, their sentences tend to be relatively short. These short sentences do not serve to incapacitate them and protect the public for any significant period of time, nor, in most cases, are they long enough to allow for admission into appropriate addiction treatment programs.

Makes one wonder, who are the real culprits? Unaware, ill-considered and lenient judges? That's what the CTV documentary suggests. What about criminologists failing to inform decision-makers? Where is the Canadian research? Of 30 habitual offender studies cited in the report, only 4 were from Canada (two of those were graduate student theses).

As I said in a previous blog, when social tragedies happen like the public housing fiasco in St. Louis's Pruitt-Igoe and gang infested Jane-Finch corridor in Toronto, someone is asleep at the wheel.

In Vancouver, it's definitely not the cops.

4 Replies so far - Add your comment

Tim Hegarty said...

I recently published an article in Police Chief magazine that summarized some of the research on the impact of chronic offenders and high crime places. Sherman suggests, however, that focusing on places can be six times more effective than focusing on offenders. What are your thoughts on that?

Gregory Saville said...


Thanks for the thoughtful comments. There are a few reasons I diverge from Sherman.

First, I don't think hot spots are unimportant - the whole premise to SafeGrowth is a focus on safe places! 

Second, focusing on cooling hot spots has been my work for two decades. (I did an early hotspot study on auto theft and remain convinced they are the way to go for community building.)

Third, I don't think directed patrol at hotspots are the only way to go. I seriously doubt the difference between hot dots (chronic offenders) and hot spots is 6 times higher. The last Sherman study with empirical data I've seen is his 1989 hotspots/directed patrol study in Minneapolis. There's been lots since then pointing to more sustainable ways to quell crime. 

My preference is the kind of results SafeGrowth produces…for example, something like this:

Thanks again and good for you for thinking this through.

PS. Please send us the link to your article. I'd love to share it with folks.

Anonymous said...


Here's the link:

And thanks for the input. The Safegrowth study focused on neighborhoods with "territorial belonging." Have you done similar work with more transient neighborhoods? That's what we deal with a great deal here.


Gregory Saville said...


Transitional places seems to be the trend as we emerge from the Global Recession.

Ralph Taylor's 1992 book Disorder and Decline talked about the important role of community organizations working in partnership with police in such transitional places.

More recently Bill Geller and Lisa Belsky's Building Our Way Out of Crime says pretty much the same thing - except they now have specific case studies to show how it's done. You can download it at

The SafeGrowth article I sent you is about 3 apartment buildings of 4000 residents which were underprivileged and incredibly transient. I think Geller and Belsky would agree that the SafeGrowth model fits perfectly their model for moving forward in transient neighborhoods.