Public Safety ministers tells Canada’s cops to innovate or face cutbacks

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
Darrell Elroy Barnes, 48, was shot and killed by police in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in July of 2011, after refusing to put down a machete.

You could get whiplash trying to follow government policy on crime.

The Conservatives' tough-on-crime approach has been a cornerstone of their government since first taking office in 2006. Mandatory minimum sentences, longer terms for some offences, more prisons.

Critics challenged that approach in the face of falling crime statistics but Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, the government's point man on the issue, has been adamant its staunch law-and-order philosophy is the right one.

But now Toews is telling police forces they should be cutting spending just as demands for more enforcement increase. At a summit of police chiefs in Ottawa this week, Toews warned the current system must be reformed, the Globe and Mail reported.

“I’ll be blunt,” Toews told the meeting on the economics of policing, which included academics and government officials.

“Police services face two options: They can do nothing and eventually be forced to cut drastically, as we have seen in some countries. Or they can be proactive, get ahead of the curve and have greater flexibility in designing and implementing both incremental and meaningful structural reforms.”

[ Related: Board decides to freeze Toronto police budget in 2013 ]

The summit is evidence of the recognition Canadian policing is due for fundamental change, Paul McKenna, who teaches public administration at Dalhousie University, told the Globe.

“A lot of police services are looking to retool themselves in fairly substantial ways," he said.

People are reporting fewer crimes to police while the cost of policing, along with the size of police forces, continues to increase, McKenna said. Local forces also find themselves stretched by having to deal with things like border security and cybercrime.

Police chiefs agree costs are unsustainable, Waterloo Regional Police Service Chief Matt Torigian told the Globe.

“This [summit] is really about opening our minds to new approaches in service delivery,” said Torigian, who was part of a group of chiefs who toured Britain last year to look at its cost-cutting approaches.

The focus has centred on the cost of the cops themselves. According to Statistics Canada figures for 2010, 80 per cent of budgets go to salaries and benefits.

Much of the discussion, therefore, has been around replacing highly paid officers with civilians or auxiliaries on jobs off the front line of enforcement through, for instance, public-private partnerships.

Mike Cunningham, chief of Britain's Staffordshire police, told the summit his force is losing hundreds of offices and civilians due to budget cuts, the Globe said. Cunningham said he's focused on sharing resources with neighbouring forces and local public services. It's also contracted out the care of people in custody, he said, and is adding more civilian staff and volunteers to augment full-time officers.

“We need to find radically different ways of delivering the service,” Cunningham told the Globe. “Because it is insufficient just to say we will carry on working the same way but with fewer people, because there are so many fewer.”

But Vancouver Police Chief Jim Chu echoed others who said officers are doing more things outside the traditional policing role.

“I used to call us the social service agency of last resort. Now with the cutbacks to all the other agencies, we’re the social service agency of first resort," Chu said. "Dealing with homelessness, dealing with street disorder, dealing with the products of poverty."

Canadian Police Association president Tom Stamatakis, whose organization represents rank-and-file officers, worries forces will focus too much on cutting pay without regard to the growing list of things they're required to handle.

“There are much higher standards in policing today than there were even 10 or 20 years ago,” he told the Globe, adding the higher degree of training and professionalism among modern cops creates higher expectations for compensation.

Stamatakis called for more partnerships between police, government and social agencies to get help for the troubled people police often encounter. It could reduce the number of times police are called out to deal with the same person.

Canadians are already seeing some shifts in how streets are policed. In Winnipeg, unarmed police cadets are conducting some patrols downtown and performing other duties, such as directing traffic, CBC News reported.

[ Related: Surge in private security raises concerns over rights ]

Vancouver has its controversial Downtown Ambassadors, a group of red-jacketed security guards employed by the business community. It's been accused of harassing the homeless but a human rights complaint against the them was rejected last year.