Ballooning police budgets don’t improve public safety

Posted on November 12, 2015 in Child & Family Delivery System – Opinion/Commentary – How Ottawa can help police boards across the country get spending under control while making communities safer.
Nov 12 2015.   By: Michael Kempa, Irvin Waller

The Toronto Police Services Board stands accused of burying a $200,000 commissioned report recommending extensive changes to the structure and funding of policing in the city — a failure of both openness and economics.
The KPMG report, commissioned by former Board chair Alok Mukherjee and presented in November 2014, outlines a significant program for structural reform, calling for the closure of major police divisional buildings in favour of more “storefront” operations, and extensive civilianization of police roles that do not require advanced police training.

Sitting quietly on this report for a full year — and only now agreeing to bring it forward for public discussion at the tail end of 2016 police budget negotiations — is not in keeping with our police services board’s legislative responsibility to help shape adequate and effective policing policy in co-operation with their chiefs and in consultation with the public.

While “radical” by the standards of the board’s more timid members, the content of the KPMG document is light-years behind the vanguard of evidence-based community safety and crime reduction policies already being practiced by innovative police leaders — on too small a scale — across Canada. If we are unable to seriously consider this report, the prospects for having the conversation we need on the future of policing are dim.

And that would be a tragedy. Over the last decade, policing costs have exploded. Police expenditure has doubled in many municipalities, becoming, in most cases, one of the largest ticket items drawing upon the municipal tax bill: the current tab in Toronto crested a billion dollars long ago and shows no sign of slowing down, while the national policing bill is closing in on $14 billion. Growth well beyond the pace of inflation cannot go on indefinitely without a concrete public safety dividend to show for it.

And there is no reason for this wasteful budget ballooning. We have ample evidence at our fingertips showing where money is best spent to promote community safety.

Diverse cities ranging from Glasgow to Minneapolis have demonstrated that mobilizing housing, education and health agencies — often pairing them with public police services — to solve social problems in high crime areas reduces violence and so demand for law enforcement. The evidence shows that violence is preventable through programs that reach out to youth at risk and provide them with strong mentors; that offer help for parents; that establish more life-skill and relationship courses in schools; and that train youth to avoid violence to resolve disputes.

Here in Canada, programs linking the police with social-service agencies — such as the HUB program run out of Saskatchewan and currently championed by progressive police leaders as the wave of the future — are playing their part in driving crime rates down and freeing up police time and resources to focus on the complex investigations and public-order work that they do best. Hard-nosed evaluations of these programs confirm that the benefits often amount to four times or much more of the costs of the programs.

Somehow, these successes have flown under the radar of police services boards, apparently including Toronto’s.

If municipal bodies lack the resources — and, some would say, political will — to promote bold discussions on community safety, there is a clear need and opportunity for federal action. Public Safety Canada has, for several years, been reviewing the economics of policing across the country. Most of the reports have been released to very little public fanfare — and have had little practical impact upon reform.

A step forward would be for the federal government to follow the examples of the United Kingdom and Australia and create a centre for excellence in policing and community safety — tasked with conducting research, program development and national standards design, and reporting in an open fashion to the public safety minister. Whereas the Harper Conservatives did not want to touch national standards for policing reform with a barge pole, a high-flying Trudeau administration might have the political capital to take this tough file on in the public interest. Such action couldn’t come soon enough.

Equipped with cutting-edge data, the federal government can drive forward standards for local policing that would respect the taxpayer and help make our society even safer. Handing police services boards some more powerful guidelines and tools will hopefully embolden these agencies. And boldness is what we need. Policing policy that is both effective and economical, and based on evidence rather than fear, may be rare in this country — but it’s by no means out of reach.

Michael Kempa is associate professor of Criminology at the University of Ottawa and expert in the politics and economics of policing @michaelakempa; Irvin Waller is professor of Criminology at the University of Ottawa and expert in community crime prevention @irvinwaller

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