HALIFAX — The rising cost of RCMP services is “changing the conversation” around policing in Nova Scotia, according to the head of the organization that represents the province’s municipalities.
Amanda McDougall, president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Municipalities, says many of the province’s 49 municipalities are nervous about pressures on already tight budgets.
The provincial government's recent budget passed down more than $20 million in increased policing costs to municipalities, meaning an average increase of 11 per cent in the 2022-23 fiscal year for towns that contract the RCMP for their police services.
“Folks are wondering if there’s anything we should be doing provincially, or whether we should start to investigate what municipal policing looks like at the regional level," McDougall said in an interview this week.
McDougall, who is also mayor of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality, said her officials have been asked by some other municipalities about the costs and services associated with its police service. “It means that folks are tossing it around,” she said, referring to policing options other than the RCMP.
According to the provincial Justice Department, five municipal units have so far begun formal reviews of their policing model to “identify possible savings and improved resourcing.” Most were underway well in advance of the most recent cost increase for RCMP services.
The five municipal units are the County of Colchester, Halifax Regional Municipality, Wolfville, Eskasoni and Cumberland, which formally approved its review during a meeting on Wednesday.
Cumberland Mayor Murray Scott, a former Nova Scotia justice minister and police officer, said the recent hike will add $500,000 to policing costs, which now account for 17 per cent of his municipality’s overall budget.
However, Scott said his municipality’s review is about more than the cost of policing. “It’s about the RCMP having the resources that we are paying for,” he said, adding that Cumberland currently pays for 27 RCMP officers. He said that full complement isn’t always available due to such things as illness, vacation or temporary leave.
“We’ve become aware over the last years that on many occasions, we are substantially lower than that (number), so that puts a lot of pressure on the resources that the RCMP have in Cumberland,” Scott said.
He said there are also concerns the RCMP, which has its area headquarters in Amherst, has largely moved away from a model that saw it fully staff detachments in towns throughout the county. “We’ve asked them to go back to that detachment-style policing to have more visibility and more presence in the communities,” said Scott.
Nova Scotia's contract with the RCMP runs until 2032, and there are regular reviews that are built into an agreement that sees municipalities pay for 70 per cent of RCMP services while the federal government pays 30 per cent.
But provincial Justice Minister Brad Johns has consistently said he wants to hold off on a potential review until he hears more from the commission of inquiry into the mass shooting that killed 22 people in April 2020. The commission is examining the RCMP response to the tragedy and is expected to look at its role in rural policing in the province.
Kent Roach, a law professor at the University of Toronto, said he hopes rural policing will be examined. “This issue seems to be a pretty large elephant in the room when you are talking about the RCMP,” Roach said in an interview.
Roach, author of a book to be published next month titled “Canadian Policing: Why and How It Must Change,” maintains that any examination of RCMP services and contract policing needs to consider more than just money — it should also look at such things as how the force trains officers to serve diverse areas of the country.
And while he believes some communities such as those in Nova Scotia need to examine the possibility of switching to municipal policing, he said it shouldn't be all or nothing. “I think the RCMP should have a support role, even if we move away and we have more local police forces that are subject to local control,” Roach said.
Currently, 10 of Nova Scotia's 49 municipalities have their own police service.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 29, 2022.
Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press