Police officers from across the country were in Ottawa recently attending a landmark summit on the economics of policing. With Canadian municipalities struggling to contain soaring public safety costs, speakers at the conference, including federal Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, warned Canada's current policing systems are unsustainable and require reform.
Even long-time police ally Mayor Sam Katz admitted earlier this month the large annual increases to the Winnipeg Police Service budget -- that has increased twice as fast as city spending more broadly since 2005 -- cannot continue.
It is not particularly surprising Canadian municipalities face mounting police spending. One of the most popular civic crime-fighting strategies over the last few decades has been to grow police forces. Confronted with a new fiscal reality, however, finding a way to make public safety affordable will require a more holistic understanding of how to reduce crime.
While nobody wants to be accused of putting citizen safety at risk, officials contemplating reform should take heart in the fact that studies show increasing the number of officers on the street is not actually the most effective way to curb criminal activity. Instead, investment in social resources including job training, mentoring, after-school activities, and recreational programs have a far more significant impact than pouring more money into law enforcement or incarceration.
In 2007, the Justice Policy Institute in the United States released a major report on the divergent approaches taken by New York and Los Angeles when tackling gang problems. Officials in California spent 25 years pumping billions of dollars into the police force, but in 2005 Los Angeles still had more than 11,400 gang-related crimes. In contrast, New York opted to use social programs to prevent gang violence, and by 2005 New York's finest had to deal with just 520 gang-related incidents.
In the same vein, between 2009 and 2011, 800 troubled Chicago teenagers attended a program called Becoming a Man: Sports Edition, which combined counselling with Olympic sports like archery and judo. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, arrest rates fell 44 per cent among participants, and most fared better in school than they had previously. While the program cost $880,000, experts at the University of Chicago estimate governments saved $2.8 million due to lower crime rates.
Importantly, these initiatives should not be seen as soft on crime. Criminologist Rick Linden has pointed out one aspect of a proactive approach is to tell known criminals they will be receiving special attention from enforcement agencies and pursue them with the full brunt of the law should an infraction occur (while also providing extensive support if they renounce their criminal lifestyle). Winnipeg adopted this strategy in 2006 to deal with auto theft, with police informing 100 high-rate offenders they would receive curfew checks every three hours and that violations would result in charges. As part of the holistic plan, there was also investment in community programs for at-risk young people and anti-theft devices were installed in vehicles. As a result, auto-theft rates dropped 83 per cent in the last six years.
At the Ottawa summit, Vancouver Police Chief Jim Chu noted "with cutbacks to other agencies, (police officers) are the social service of first resort dealing with homelessness, dealing with street disorder, dealing with products of poverty."
Yet, he fully acknowledged law enforcement officers are not the best-placed professionals to help citizens struggling with these issues.
Canadian Police Association President Tom Stamatakis encouraged greater partnership between police, government, and social agencies to ensure people get the help they need before and after a police encounter.
Otherwise, officers are left "responding multiple times in one night, or multiples times in one week, to the same person who's struggling with the same issues"-- hardly an effective use of expensive resources.
A capable law enforcement agency is an essential part of any public safety plan, but locking someone up does little to reduce the likelihood they will reoffend. Instead, addressing the reasons young people choose a criminal lifestyle is far more effective at stopping crime and is almost always less expensive than leaving emergency services to pick up the pieces. With less crime, cities can use fewer police officers and resources in a more effective way to deal with crime.
Though it may not be as sexy as a hiring a new batch of officers, investing in stronger social programs may be one of the most effective long-term strategies municipalities can employ to rein in burgeoning police budgets.
Benjamin Gillies is a graduate of the University of Manitoba, where he studied urban development and energy policy. He is a consultant in Winnipeg.