Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bottom, not blue line thin

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Some police officers believe you can't put a price on the value of solving a homicide, but does that mean no price is too high?

It's a rhetorical question, of course, but it illustrates that when it comes to crunching the numbers for police budgets, the debate is as much about accounting as it is about emotion.

The Winnipeg Police Association, for example, says it's convinced that front-line officers -- the men and women in blue who keep you safe -- will be targeted for cuts in an operational review of the police service.

The city, however, says it merely wants to determine if taxpayers are getting value for their money.

The police union says the firm hired for the review, Matrix Consulting, has a reputation for slashing police officers, but the American company's record suggests it has a broader repertoire than simply cutting jobs. The firm, for example, has found systemic problems in other police departments, including poor use of technology, outdated record keeping and inadequate use of civilian employees, among other things.

The Winnipeg force is long overdue for an objective, outside review. In fact, cities across North America are engaging in the same process as they struggle to balance budget resources with levels of service that meet public expectations and need.

Even Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, a member of the law and order Conservative government, is now calling for municipalities to examine their spending on police services, saying the current trends are no longer sustainable.

The city will spend more than $240 million this year on policing, or 26 per cent of the total budget. In the last eight years alone, the budget has increased by 65.5 per cent.

Like police departments everywhere, the Winnipeg force has benefited from polling that shows safety is a major priority with voters. It's unclear, however, if the whopping increases in spending have resulted in a corresponding increase in safety or arrest rates.

Police overtime has been a challenge for over a decade, but the force's leaders have been unable to bring it under control.

How much overtime is a homicide worth?

If the city did decide to reduce its 1,400-strong force -- one of the largest police forces in the country on a per-capita basis -- it will have to untangle its complicated relationship with the province and Manitoba Public Insurance, both of which provide funding for extra police officers.

The province alone promised 50 new police officers, plus funding for 25 police cadets, in the 2011 provincial election. In the civic election a year earlier, Mayor Sam Katz pledged 58 new officers.

Neither leader stopped to consider or analyze the city's real need because both were more interested in appealing to the public's perceived sense of insecurity.

Winnipeg's relatively large force may be justified because statistics show the city has one of the highest crime severity indexes in the country. The index measures the seriousness of various crimes, as opposed to just the volume. That doesn't mean, however, that efficiencies cannot be found in the way police are deployed and managed.

The bottom line is the city cannot afford to continue in the same direction.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 31, 2013 A14

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