Canadian police forces are undergoing a transformation dealing with changing service demands at a time when the national crime rate has dropped to its lowest level since 1969.
But the head of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) says while the stats seem to indicate a kinder, gentler society, they fail to tell the full picture of what’s happening on the streets.
“The reality is that crime is coming down but the demand for our service has not decreased,” Clive Weighill, who is also Saskatoon’s police chief, told Yahoo Canada News.
“We are seeing this right across Canada as about 25 per cent of our resources are dealing with crime issues. The rest is dealing with social issues.”
Weighill, a 31-year veteran officer, explained those issues could be calls, such as checking out a suspicious person or vehicle and neighbourhood or custody disputes.
“These are the things that are time consuming and tying us up.”
Police forces are also under increasing pressure, but are working with organizations like the Mental Health Commission of Canada, to learn how to handle being on the front lines when someone is having a mental health issue or crisis.
Also of concern to police, he said, is the increasing number of illegal guns on the street.
“It used to be that knives and baseball bats were the weapons of choice, but it seems now that is shifting a little bit more to firearms — especially with organized crime and gangs,” said Weighill.
He points to his own city of Saskatoon, which is Canada’s most crime-ridden city, is dealing with increased gun calls.
“We’ve already had 20 shootings and five homicides. We don’t normally have that many shootings. We’re also seeing people wearing bullet-proof vests with firearms in the cars — things that we didn’t see 10 years ago.”
Time consuming investigations of serious crimes also means police are pressured to look for ways to pull officers away from some of their traditional duties. While this is not the case in Canada, police in Britain have stopped going to break and enter scenes — handling it by phone or report.
Weighill said there are pressures to find answers in Canada, but he warns there will be ramifications if similar changes happened here.
“We’re trying to reconcile the cost of policing and trying to find efficiencies, but we hope that’s not one of the roads we go down in Canada. A break-and-enter in your house, or theft of property, can be very traumatic for people and if someone feels the police don’t care, then there’s going to be a real disconnect between people and the police.”
Legislative changes are causing increased demands for police resources, he said, adding changes to disclosure provisions and requiring additional search warrants for many investigations don’t help.
“These kinds of things are slowing down and bogging down the system.”
The CACP president said crime stats no longer paint a complete picture as they don’t include items that were included in the past — such as graffiti calls in some cities. Weighill pointed out that in British Columbia it was taking so long to prosecute impaired driving cases under the Criminal Code that they have enacted provincial legislation to deal with impaired drivers.
“So we’re no longer charging people with impaired driving in Canada – the offences are still happening, but they are being recorded under provincial statutes, not crime stats, which could also be why crime is falling.”
“Statistics Canada and CACP are working closely to examine how to record not only stats, but calls for service, what is really driving the demand — how busy are police?”
Criminologist Rick Ruddell of the University of Regina said staffing levels in most Canadian police services have been relatively stable for the past 40 years — with about 1.95 officers per 1,000 residents.
Statistics Canada issued a report in March showing police strength has declined slightly since 2011. There were 68,896 police officers in Canada on May 15, 2014, 354 fewer officers than in 2013, the report said.
Ruddell said the study paints a full picture of police and crime issues in Canada. He said police forces in Canada have been increasingly required to add duties to their jobs.
“Even though Statistics Canada reports that crime has been on a downward trend — we have to remember that responding to crime is only a portion of a police officer's job,” Ruddell told Yahoo Canada News.
“Some scholars have estimated that less than 25 per cent of an officer's time is spent in actual law enforcement.”
Ruddell also cautioned against reading too much into decreasing crime stats.
“We also have to remember that the number of crimes actually reported to the police is only a fraction of the offences that actually occur — many minor and serious crimes go unreported,” he said, adding U.S. police forces found that out the hard way.
“After the economic crash in 2008, many U.S. police forces reduced the number of officers and crime increased afterwards in some cities. The number of civilian personnel in police services has also been increasing to ‘free up’ officers who were doing administrative jobs, so that they can return to the streets.”