Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Let's shoot for biggest bang from policing bucks

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It's not you, Winnipeg Police Service. It's city council. Face it, they're just not that into you anymore.

This likely comes as no surprise to Winnipeg cops. Especially after last week, when councillors sparred with senior cops over the leak of an operational review aimed at trimming millions of dollars from the police budget.

The review, prepared by a Texas-based consultant known for mapping cuts to police agencies, called for major cuts including the disbanding of several special units. The leak prompted an absurd war of words between councillors and cops.

Not surprisingly, the absurdity reached its crescendo with blustery Coun. Russ Wyatt at the baton. Angry the report had been made public, Wyatt accused senior police officers of leaking it to sabotage cost-cutting initiatives. He said the leak was proof police leadership "will do anything to protect the empire they have created."

WPS Chief Devon Clunis denied leaking the review, but the damage had been done. At a time when we desperately need leadership to get the biggest bang out of our policing bucks, we get schoolyard bickering instead.

The need for an outside operational review has never been properly articulated. Clunis revealed recently the WPS is planning a new co-ordinated "community health" strategy to streamline police responsibilities while ensuring better overall service. Launching an outside review while police are engaged in what appears to be a major re-organization of front-line duties is a poor bit of planning on the city's part.

Finger pointing and poor planning aside, there is a critical issue here that requires our collective attention.

Over the last decade, governments at all levels spent wildly on law enforcement to "get tough on crime." Now, there is growing concern taxpayers cannot afford the system we built.

Just how much did we spend? The Parliamentary Budget Officer reported earlier this year per capita federal spending on criminal justice -- a large portion of which is devoted to federal, provincial and municipal law enforcement -- went up 23 per cent between 2002 and 2012, even though crime rates fell steadily over the same period. And that's just federal spending; the Federation of Canadian Municipalities calculated 2009 policing costs at $12.3 billion, nearly double the $6.4 billion spent in 1999.

Unfortunately, that spending spree created a long-term liability for taxpayers. Promising new police officers is a great bit of campaign marketing, but few of the proponents stopped to consider the long-term impact. Now, like children who relentlessly demand second helpings of dessert, those same politicians are moaning about a tummy ache.

The big surprise is how quickly some of the foremost fans of increased police spending seamlessly evolved into self-declared agents of austerity.

Last January, former Public Safety Minister Vic Toews hosted a national conference on controlling police costs where he warned mayors and police chiefs to change their ways or face drastic cutbacks. A frequent and vehement proponent of bigger, bolder police presence over his political career, Toews reportedly had nary a blush as he chastised the mayors and police chiefs for letting costs get away from them.

It's a remarkable change in this debate. Imagine you accepted an offer from the friendly McDonald's cashier to super-size your Big Mac meal. But when the cashier brings your food, he calls you "fatso" and shakes his head disapprovingly.

This is a problem that requires some very deliberate, very sober thinking. It is still unclear whether adding more police officers, in and of itself, can contain and reduce crime. In general, police only get involved after a crime has been committed. That leaves little opportunity for crime prevention.

Certainly, the Winnipeg Police Association makes a compelling argument that the more officers you put on the street, the more chronic criminals are arrested and imprisoned and the more crimes are prevented. And yet, we're learning there is a cost associated with that level of policing.

We won't get anywhere near a solution until politicians wean themselves off the temptation to make more "boots on the streets" the sole focus of crime reduction. As progressive communities in this country have found, true crime reduction is the result of a comprehensive strategy involving police, social services, health care and schools.

This is not a criticism of law enforcement; cops are unfairly blamed whenever there are spikes in crime. At the same time, they have been forced to take on the work of social workers and mental-health professionals. We need to relieve them of those tasks and allow them to focus on what they do best.

For now, it appears the love affair between politicians and police in this town has cooled considerably. We should hope out of this estrangement we forge a partnership that will seek a balance between the police we need and the police we can afford.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 3, 2013 0

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