Tackling the ‘untouchable’

Takes work, but city council can rein in police budget

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In Al Capone's Chicago, a unit of federal officers earned the nickname "the Untouchables" because they couldn't be bribed. Today, "the Untouchables" would be a better nickname for the dollars locked up in Winnipeg's police budget. Last week, Coun. Marty Morantz took heat from deputy police chief Art Stannard after the councillor asked if it was possible to save a buck or two from an untouchable sum that's already north of $260 million. Monday, Chief Devon Clunis told reporters that he would have behaved exactly as Stannard did.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/01/2015 (2817 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In Al Capone’s Chicago, a unit of federal officers earned the nickname “the Untouchables” because they couldn’t be bribed. Today, “the Untouchables” would be a better nickname for the dollars locked up in Winnipeg’s police budget. Last week, Coun. Marty Morantz took heat from deputy police chief Art Stannard after the councillor asked if it was possible to save a buck or two from an untouchable sum that’s already north of $260 million. Monday, Chief Devon Clunis told reporters that he would have behaved exactly as Stannard did.

The growth in Canadian police budgets has been unsustainable for a generation. Winnipeg’s police budget rose 2.8 times faster than inflation in the last decade, while Toronto police costs outpaced inflation by a factor of 2.3. Edmonton’s police operating budget nearly doubled from 2005 to 2015. Now that it’s crunch time in Mayor Brian Bowman’s first budget, it’s time to debunk some of the myths that shield police budgets from fair scrutiny.

The most common myth: more police spending means less crime. In the real world, while a sizable police force is needed to deliver modern hotspot policing tactics, there’s no established relationship between overall police budgets and local crime rates.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Mayor Brian Bowman inspects Winnipeg’s newest police graduates in November.

Another myth: you can’t save from salaries. Salaries represent roughly 85 per cent of Winnipeg’s police budget. It’s 90 per cent in Toronto, and 92 per cent in Waterloo. Police leaders repeat these figures to make it seem like it’s impossible to save without cutting on-street officers.

This is fiction. Better management can contain growing overtime costs. Cut the number of special units and you can save on management while increasing police flexibility. Technological solutions and civilian staff can deliver administrative support more cheaply than uniformed officers can. Don’t forget Winnipeg’s police helicopter; in the drone era, surely there’s a cheaper way?

Yes, it’d be tough to make some changes without provincial support — but city hall can offer to share savings with the province to buy that support.

Morantz was also right to note that Winnipeg’s force (like many) is top heavy. Many officers are near or past retirement age, with compensation to match. Offering one-time retirement incentives wouldn’t count against the 2015 operating budget. If city hall bought faster retirements, Winnipeg could save money without cutting on-street officers, simply by trading retirees for younger, cheaper recruits.

Another myth: police spending is the only way to invest in public safety. For example, ‘Housing First’ policies can cut demand for police and emergency street services by making easier to treat ill or addicted homeless patients. While social savings never appear instantly, there’s a point where spending more on policing at the expense of investing in prevention can lead to diminishing returns. With more uniforms per capita than most Canadian cities, Winnipeg can’t be far from that point.

There’s a prevailing myth that arbitration decisions make it impossible for cities to bargain for lower police salaries. In reality, civic leaders can simply promise to match every excess salary dollar gained in arbitration with an equal cut to the overall police budget. If unions ask for too much, layoffs are the likely result. Nobody wants this, but it may be time to force police unions to face that choice directly.

Canadian cities wouldn’t be alone if they tried. American cities faced ugly fiscal choices in the wake of the 2008 recession. Several ‘tough on crime’ mayors across the U.S. didn’t hesitate to threaten police layoffs if unions refused to bargain for more sustainable pensions and benefits.

The most absurd myth in this controversy: the idea that Morantz was wrong to be asking questions about policing at all. Last Thursday, the deputy chief dodged budget questions with the argument the Winnipeg Police Service only reported to the Winnipeg Police Board. On Friday, Stannard went further, describing Morantz’s questions as “disrespectful.”

To be clear, Stannard deserves respect, since he’s rightly regarded as one of Winnipeg’s best police officers. But respect cuts both ways. Nothing in Winnipeg’s police board model prevented Stannard from answering a few questions, especially since city council must ultimately sign off on the police board’s total budget. Stannard’s chain of command concerns were enough to excuse him from demands for a detailed briefing. But Morantz only asked a few general questions, with room for general answers.

If police managers are upset, they should imagine the alternative: a world where frustrated councillors deal with their previously untouchable budget by legislating arbitrary savings targets from above, without the courtesy of any questions on the way. In that context, both Stannard and Clunis should’ve seen Morantz’s questions as the opportunity they were, rather than as the wounds they’ve wrongly been portrayed to be.

 

Brian Kelcey is an urban public policy consultant. He previously served as a senior political adviser at Winnipeg’s city hall and in the Ontario provincial government.

History

Updated on Tuesday, January 13, 2015 8:09 AM CST: Replaces photo

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