Cape Breton police defend force size after study says it's above-average

Cape Breton Regional Municipality might have more police officers per capita than other Canadian jurisdictions of similar size, but the force's deputy chief says they're needed to keep crime rates low and to cover for those off sick.

A recent viability study — paid for by Nova Scotia's Department of Municipal Affairs — found CBRM has a relatively low crime rate and low incidence of severe crime.

It also said the municipality has more police officers per capita than the national average and compared to similar jurisdictions.

Deputy Chief Robert Walsh said the crime rate is down 30 per cent over the last five years, and it's lower than the provincial and national averages.

However, he said the force needs its 200 officers because of staffing challenges.

Increased overtime

"At any given time, currently we have between 30 and 40 members off. I can tell you that they are legitimately off, that it's indicative of an aging police service," said Walsh.

The number of officers absent from work has meant an increase in overtime for other officers, and the force is recruiting to replace retiring officers and to cover those on long-term disability, he said.

However, Walsh said police don't know how many are on short or long-term leave, or whether there are common causes.

The deputy chief couldn't say how the Cape Breton force's absenteeism rate compares provincially or nationally, but he said that would be part of a review the viability study recommended.

Gordie MacDougall, CBRM's director of human resources, said on average, Cape Breton officers are off the job fewer days per year than most.

"Based on the national average, it's actually similar or less," he said.

"I believe the national average is 12.2 [days] per year. I think we're down around 11 days per year.

"It's within an acceptable level, but having said that, there's always room for improvement and we're working towards that."

Tom Ayers/CBC

MacDougall said reasons for absences include short-term illness such as colds, workers' compensation issues and long-term disability.

Short-term illnesses are usually the biggest problem, he said, because you can't add staff to cover for those, but officers can be hired to fill in for members off for other reasons.

CBRM has hired an HR worker to deal with police absences, but MacDougall said that's not an indication of a large problem.

Sick time costly

"There's always going to be a number of people off," he said.

"It's how you control the number of people that are off is the issue, and we're working towards — not just in the police department but in all of the departments — [ensuring] that people are at work and healthy.

"Sick time is a costly thing for municipalities everywhere, so we're being proactive."

Tom Ayers/CBC

Jennifer Campbell, the municipality's chief financial officer, said the viability study identified what appears to be an issue with police staffing, but said the study admits it was a limited examination.

"Such information is subject to interpretation and assumption, and it is important to ensure that when comparing our police service to other jurisdictions that relevant, accurate and comparable data is applied," Campbell told CBRM's police commission on Tuesday.

She said staff are planning for an in-depth study of police staffing — as recommended in the viability study — in the coming months.