by Neil Robertson, Q.C. who has worked in the field of local government for over thirty years in the provincial, municipal and police sectors and is currently employed as Legal Counsel to the Regina Police Service
There has been much discussion about the cost of policing in recent years. One of the underlying premises seems to be that Canadians pay too much for their police. This premise is reflected in some of the language used around “sustainability” and gaining “control” over these costs, in particular police remuneration. Statistics are quoted that do show an increase in costs of policing. But do the numbers actually support assertions that there are too many police officers or that policing costs are “unsustainable” or “out of control”?
Statistics Canada has been recording and producing credible data on policing for over fifty years, some of which is produced in an annual report titled Police Resources in Canada. This article will refer to data from that report and other credible sources to suggest that these assertions are misinformed or exaggerated. It will also try to provide some context to the debate with reference to Canada’s wealth and tax revenues and the influence of ideology.
THE COST OF POLICING
I. Has the cost of policing increased?
The cost of policing has increased. The total cost of policing in Canada in 2011 was $12,931,555. The per capita cost of policing, adjusted for inflation, rose from $218 in 1985 to $313 in 2011, indicating that the real cost of policing has increased.
II. Why have costs increased?
There are a number of factors contributing to increased costs in policing. A 2005 report of the Centre for Criminal Justice Research of the University College of the Fraser Valley, sometimes referred to as the “Plecas” report for one of its authors, confirmed that police work has become more complex and time-consuming, as the result of court rulings applying the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, technological change, and increased demand for services. These changes increased labour costs.
I. Why does the concern over cost focus on police remuneration?
Because policing is a labour-intensive service, most of the cost is wages and benefits. Indeed, commentators have cautioned against reductions in non-labour costs since any financial benefits from such reductions amy be outweighed by the harm to the effectiveness of the service. Cost-cutting exercises therefore reasonably focus on the cost of labour – pay and benefits.
II. Are police paid too much?
Police have, over time, been successful in achieving what many would consider to be good pay and benefits, in large part thanks to police unions reaching settlements through collective bargaining and interest arbitration. In other sectors, this is taken as reflecting the market value of the labour. Certainly, the result has been to move police officers into the middle class, which is a measure of social stability and health. It might be suggested this is an example to emulate, rather than undermine.
There are obvious justifications for this remuneration, including the stringent entrance requirements, special disciplinary regime and public scrutiny, complexity of the work, difficult working conditions, value of retention of highly trained personnel, and to promote policing as a profession. Certainly, with regards to professionalism, reasonable pay is a significant factor in combating the corruption which afflicts police in many countries, but is rare amongst Canadian police.
ABILITY TO PAY OR WILLINGNESS TO PAY?
I. Can we continue to afford the cost of police?
The financial crisis of 2007 – 2008 and its aftermath have created financial strain for many, including governments. But the reality is that we are blessed to live in a country which has become steadily wealthier, not poorer, over our lifetimes, even if that wealth has been shared unequally. Canada’s wealth, measured by both gross domestic product and income per capita, adjusted for inflation and population growth, has steadily increased, doubling over the past thirty years. While some may be unwilling to pay for the public services most citizens want, we have the ability to pay.
II. What has changed to support concerns over capacity to pay?
The issue may be less economic than ideological. It remains true that “Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society”. But rather different sentiments have emerged in recent decades. These are most dramatically expressed in the slogan “Starve the Beast”, which I first saw on billboards along US highways. It summarizes a strategy to curb the influence and growth of government by intentionally reducing tax revenue, creating deficits that will then require cuts to services. This strategy accepts that, in a democracy, the public appetite for public services makes it difficult to reduce spending, whichever party is in power. Unfortunately, this strategy has been more successful in creating public debt, deteriorating public infrastructure and under-performing public services than in reducing spending.
III. Are Canadians over-taxed?
The total taxes collected in Canada, as a percentage of GDP, did increase over the past forty years. The OECD records from 1965 – 2010 for Canada begin with a low of 25.7% and steadily increase to peak in 1997-98 at 36.7%, after which the share begins to drop to 31% in 2010. This Canadian tax share is higher than the USA, at 24.8%, but lower than comparable European countries (France, at 42.9%; Germany, at 36.1%; United Kingdom, at 34.9%) and the OECD average of 33.8%.
IV. Are municipal revenues too limited?
There is an argument to be made that total tax revenue is shared unequally between the federal, provincial and local governments in Canada. The OECD records of the share of tax revenues taken by levels of government shows that local governments in Canada receive a relatively low share of total tax revenues, compared with other federal states, and that the share of tax revenues taken by Canadian local governments has dropped over time to 9.1% in 2010, well below the OECD average of 21.8%. Property tax revenue in Canada constituted 3.5 % of GDP in 2011, almost double the OECD average of 1.8%. Certainly, municipal leaders complain about limited sources of revenue, in particular their reliance upon the property tax base, given the demands for local services and infrastructure.
Canadian municipal governments are required to balance their operating budgets and are subject to provincial limits on capital borrowing. While this helped to spare municipalities from the visible public debts incurred by federal and provincial governments, many kept taxes low by deferring maintenance, replacement and construction of necessary infrastructure. Continued over decades, this created a less visible debt burden that now limits the financial capacity and choices of many municipal governments. These municipalities now seek solutions to a problem created by a lack of fiscal responsibility over many years.
V. Has the police share of municipal expenditures increased?
When I began my career, some thirty years ago, we used to joke that the higher settlements achieved by police associations through collective bargaining and interest arbitration would eventually result in a municipal government limited to an assessment and tax department to raise the revenue to fund the police service. But that never happened. In fact, at the City of Regina, the police share of municipal expenditures, which historically ranged from 20 – 22 % was at an all time low of 18.4% in 2013. Some of this decrease may be attributed to increased funding for police services from the province and federal governments. But even if those revenues were removed, the police share of the municipal budget would remain within the historical norm.
I. Are we over-policed?
The ratio of police to population (referred to as “police strength”) increased in the 1960s and ‘70s, peaking in 1975 at 206.2 Canadian police officers per 100,000 people, when it began to fall to 194.8 in 1985, rebounding to 202.5 in 1991, and then fell through the 1990s to a low of 181.6 in 1998. Since then, police strength has increased, reaching 202.4 in 2010 and then falling slightly to 199 in 2012. This ebb and flow of police strength reflects both increases in demand for police service and changes in the Canadian economy.
The drop in the 1990s resulted from with reductions in public expenditures at both the federal and provincial levels as the respective governments of Prime Minister Jean Chretien and Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow made tough choices to address public debt. Those measures also reduced revenues of local governments, which are required to fund local police services (The Police Act, 1990). As the numbers show, real reductions occurred over that decade. Some statistics now relied upon by proponents of police cuts use 1998 as a starting point. While the numbers may be accurate, the impression left may still be misleading. Some of the increases since then were making up for the cuts of the 1990s.
II. Regardless, how does Canada compare with other countries?
Perhaps surprisingly, given our vast geographic expanse and relatively high crime rate, the ratio of police to population in Canada is less than other developed countries. Police Resources in Canada, 2012 states, at page 8, that “Among the eight countries that included in the scope of the UNODC survey, Canada’s police strength [at 199 police officers per 100,000 population] was similar to that of Japan  and New Zealand , but well below Scotland , Australia , England and Wales  and the United States .”
I. Haven’t crime rates been falling?
Yes. Statistics Canada has measured the crime rate in Canada since 1962. The Canadian crime rate increased at an alarming rate through the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, from 2,771 crimes reported per 100,000 population in 1962 until it peaked in 1991 at 10,040. Since then the crime rate has steadily decreased, to 5,589 in 2012. This 2012 crime rate is comparable to the crime rates around 1972 – 73. The violent crime rate also rose from 221 in 1962, peaking at 1,084 in 1992 and then decreasing to 837 in 2012. While all crime has decreased, therefore, violent crime remains relatively high. Further, the crime rate is not uniform across the country. The crime rate in some communities, including many in Saskatchewan, remains unacceptably high.
The ratio of Criminal Code incidents detected or reported to police compared with the number of police officers employed similarly rose from 19.7 in 1962 to a high of 51.1 in 1991. Police became busier responding to more calls for service. This ratio of incidents per officer then began to decrease, falling to 28.6 in 2011, comparable to the rates in the late 1960s.
II. If the crime rate is dropping, why do we need as many police officers?
The underlying assumption is that police have less work to do when the crime rate falls. There is obviously some basis to that assumption, but it ignores important facts.
First, the crime rate is not a full reflection of police work. Indeed, Sir Robert Peel, who as Home Secretary established the London Metropolitan Police in 1829, acknowledged as the genesis of modern policing, stated Principles of Policing to guide policing which remain as true now as then. The first of Peel’s Principles is “To prevent crime and disorder as an alternative to repression by military force and by severity of legal punishment.” The last of Peel’s Principles is: “To recognize always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.” This test recognized the purpose of police as being, first and foremost, order maintenance by keeping the peace and crime prevention by gaining local knowledge and cooperation of the community. Yet most police measures focus on crime occurrence and law enforcement activity. (Reiner, 2000; Wilson 1993) Police themselves are guilty of undue emphasis on crime rates, rather than their role in promoting civil society through public service, crime prevention and mitigation of social disorder.
Although response to crime occurrence must remain the core work of police, including investigation of crimes, most calls for police service do not result in criminal charges and much productive police work is not directed towards investigation of crime. Police work best when they are able to maintain the peace. Commentators suggest that some police duties have been taken on by default, such as responding to mental health calls, because few other public services are available around the clock throughout the year. It is questionable, however, if better service could be provided at less cost by establishing alternate services. Even if that were done, while not all of those calls for service will require police, some will. And in most cases, whether police service is required will not be known until the response is made. By then, it may be too late for police intervention to avert calamity.
III. Why not replace police officers and assign duties to lower paid positions?
This has occurred. The ratio of police officers to non-officer (or “civilian”) employees in Canada’s police officers has been steadily dropping since data began to be collected in 1962, when there were 4.6 police officers for every non-officer employed, to 2.5 in 2012. Police services also contract with reputable organizations such as the Canadian Corps of Commissionaires, which provide reliable, trained and disciplined workers to perform, at a lower cost, tasks which would otherwise be performed by police officers or other police employees.
IV. Could more be done?
Certainly. But replacing police officers with lower paid positions is also fraught with dangers: challenge to manage specialized positions; less able to respond to general calls, resulting in slower service, difficult to know when dangers will occur (traffic stops usually routine, but also most dangerous work police undertake); less trained people may be injured, generate public complaints.
Police services could refuse to provide certain public services they now perform, but that would either harm civil society or shift the cost to other public services that are not constituted to provide service around the clock throughout the year. While this could be done, it is doubtful if the costs would be less.
Claims that policing costs are out of control or unsustainable are not factually supported. The cost of policing has increased, but no more so than the cost of municipal government. These cost increases were for the most part occasioned by external factors, including public demand for service. Over the same period, our ability to pay increased, although tax revenues were deliberately decreased. The question is not, therefore, whether we have the ability to pay, but whether we are willing to pay.
Canadians are entitled to and should insist upon high standards of performance and behaviour from their police. For the most part, Canadians are well-served by their police. This is not to suggest we should be complacent, overlook problems, tolerate waste, fail to consider proposals for changes, or introduce measured reforms. But neither should we accept exaggerated claims or imprudent calls for change.
Any public service must be open to review and reform. But as Clive Weighill, Chief of Police of Saskatoon and Commander of the Police Order of Merit, said during a meeting of the Saskatchewan Association of Chiefs of Police, “The model is not broken because there is a cost to it.”
Bartlett, Bruce. “Tax Cuts and ‘Starving the Beast’”, Forbes, May 7, 2010, available at www.forbes.com/2010/05/06/tax-cuts-republicans-starve-the-beast-columnists-bruce-bartlett.html
Conference Board of Canada, How Canada Performs available at www.conferenceboard.ca/hcp/details/economy and Income Inequality, available at www.conferenceboard.ca/hcp/details/society/income-inequality.aspx
Federation of Canadian Municipalities, Canadian Infrastructure Report Card, available at www.fcm.ca/Documents/reports/Canadian_Infrastructure_Report_Card_EN.pdf
Malm, Aili et al, A 30 Year Analysis of Police Service Delivery and Costing: “E” Division, 2005, available at http://www.ufv.ca/media/assets/ccjr/ccjr-resources/ccjr-publications/30_Year_Analysis_(English).pdf
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD): Revenue Statistics Tax Ratios between 1965 and 2010, available at www.oecd.org/ctp/tax-policy/table2.xls ; Revenue statistics country note for Canada, available at www.oecd.org/ctp/tax-policy/revenuestatisticscountrynoteforcanada.htm; and Table E. Attribution of tax revenues to sub-sectors of general government as a percentage of total tax revenues, at http://www.oecd.org/ctp/tax-policy/Table_E_eng.xls
Peel’s Principles of Policing, reproduced in Policing in Canada by Rene Marin, (Aurora: Canada Law Book, 1997) at p. 179 – 180, and at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peelian_Principles
Perrault, Samuel, Police-reported crime statistics in Canada, 2012, published by Canadian Centre of Justice Statistics, available at www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/85-002-x/2013001/article/11854-eng.htm?fpv=26930
The Police Act, 1990, S.S.1990-91, c. P- 15.01, s. 25 and 33
Reiner, Robert. 2000. The Politics of Police. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Statistics Canada, Police Resources in Canada, 2012,
– “Table 1 Trends in police personnel and expenditures, Canada, 1962 – 2012”, and “Table 10 Current and constant dollar expenditures on policing, Canada, 1985 – 2011”, available at www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/85-225-x/2012000/part-partie1-eng.htm
– “Description for Chart 1, Police-reported crime statistics, Canada 1962 – 2012”, available at http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/85-002-x/2013001/article/11854/c-g/desc/desc01-eng.htm
Trading Economics, GDP per capita 1971 – 2013, available at www.tradingeconomics.com/canada/gdp-per-capita
Wilson, James Q. 1983. Thinking About Crime. New York: Vintage