They pander, we pay

Promising more police is easy; doing what is needed is hard -- at least for our current crop of politicians

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Whether you're running for mayor, premier or prime minister, the easiest way to trawl for votes in Winnipeg is to promise to hire more police officers.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/09/2011 (4099 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Whether you’re running for mayor, premier or prime minister, the easiest way to trawl for votes in Winnipeg is to promise to hire more police officers.

At least that’s the conventional wisdom in a city plagued by gang violence and other high-profile incidents of violent crime. As my colleague Mary Agnes Welch pointed out last week, the slow but steady drop in Winnipeg’s overall crime rate has done little to staunch the average voter’s desire to see more men and women in uniform on the street.

Politicians know this, which is why they keep promising to hire more police. And when those promises begin to sound worn out, they promise other crime-fighting measures, from police helicopters and canine-unit facilities to mandatory-minimum sentences and more jails.

You saw this during the 2010 mayoral race, when Sam Katz’s promise to hire more police resonated with the public more effectively than Judy Wasylycia-Leis’ well-intentioned but utterly amorphous promise to address the proverbial root causes of crime.

You saw this during the 2011 federal election, when the victorious Conservatives pledged to put more people in jail and keep criminals there longer.

And you saw this all last week, as the Manitoba NDP, Progressive Conservatives and Liberals all tried to position themselves as the best party to fight crime.

But after decades of law-and-order promises flowing like cheap lager at election time, almost every government in Canada — municipal, provincial, First Nations and federal — has woken up with a hangover. The price tag for maintaining larger police services and justice programs has become an increasing financial burden that may no longer be sustainable, at least in terms of growth.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Winnipeg, where policing now accounts for almost one out of every four dollars the city spends on services. And it keeps rising faster than the overall operating budget, mainly because of the increasing cost of police salaries.

This is not an opinion. This year, the Winnipeg Police Service budget is $202 million, or 24 per cent of the overall $847-million operating budget.

Last year, the police budget was $190 million, or 23 per cent of the $818-million operating budget. Go back to 2006, and the police budget was $153 million, or 21 per cent of the $721-million operating budget.

There is no doubt the Winnipeg Police Service does its job extremely well, especially considering the challenges officers face in a city afflicted by intractable poverty. Many Winnipeggers have no idea how difficult it is for frontline officers to wade into situations where they are forced to act as social workers even though they carry batons and guns.

The now-defunct Winnipeg Police Advisory Board did an excellent job of conveying the futility of throwing more police at social problems such substance addiction, transience, under-education and a lack of both family and neighbourhood cohesion.

But our politicians are nowhere near as brave as the officers and citizens who tell it like it is. Katz, who intended the Winnipeg Police Advisory Board to act as a means of ensuring the police service delivers value for the money it spends, has all but abandoned his fiscal conservatism when it comes to police budgets.

Earlier this year, when asked what effect police-union contract negotiations would have on the city budget, Katz suggested police are underpaid.

“I can guarantee none of us would do that job for what they get paid,” Katz told reporters in January.

The mayor’s comment prompted criticism Katz undermined the city’s bargaining position with the Winnipeg Police Association, a union that endorsed him the previous fall. But finance chairman Scott Fielding (St. James) rode to the mayor’s defence, noting the city has less control over police contracts than it does over other union negotiations because of binding arbitration, which may peg Winnipeg police salaries to those in other cities.

Privately, however, senior city officials have expressed concern that police spending is eating into other departmental budgets, to the point where cuts to non-emergency services could be on the horizon.

But no politician in crime-plagued Winnipeg, at any level of government, would dare to suggest any means of curbing the growth of the police budget. The precedent has been set: Fail to promise more policing, and you appear soft on crime.

In contrast, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has ordered the Toronto Police Service to slash its budget by 10 per cent this year. According to the Toronto Star, the Toronto Police Board hopes to do this by contracting out administrative services, reducing the number of officers in management positions and buying out 400 officers.

But in a remarkable sign of Ford’s commitment to fiscal conservatism, layoffs are on the table if the police budget can’t be cut by other means. Such a move would be political suicide in Winnipeg.

Observers of both cities suggest Ford can get away with cutting the police budget because the severity of crime is lower in Toronto than it is in Winnipeg.

This may very well be true. But until our politicians engage in a frank debate about policing, social policy and the way all levels of government spend money, Winnipeg taxpayers will be stuck with the tab for their election-campaign pandering.

JOE.BRYKSA@FREEPRESS.MB.CA

Promising more police is easy. Promising more efficient police is hard. Since elected officials aren’t up to the task, it’s time for the police service to lead the debate.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

ON THE

WAY UP

 

Recent Winnipeg Police

Service budgets:

 

2011: $202 million

2010: $190 million

2009: $179 million

2008: $166 million

2007: $159 million

2006: $153 million

 

— Source: City of Winnipeg

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