Rising policing costs and the future of public safety

·7 min read

GUYSBOROUGH -- As the fiscal year drew to a close this spring, and budgets were formulated by municipalities across the province, one of the biggest line items was policing costs – expenses which, for most municipalities in Nova Scotia, mean the price tag attached to RCMP service.

Mulgrave questions cost for service

This year, both the Town of Mulgrave and the Municipality of the District of Guysborough (MODG) saw their policing costs rise by just more than 11 per cent. The total budget line for the RCMP in Mulgrave is 10 per cent of its overall budget and has steadily risen year over year.

In a Town of Mulgrave council meeting last April, councillors voiced concerns over the cost of policing and the service the town was getting. This week, Mulgrave Mayor Ron Chisholm said that continued to be a concern but, “There has been a change in service. There has been a police presence in the town a little more regularly than it used to be. Next week, we have another meeting [police advisory board] coming up…we’ll just keep pushing it.”

Councillor Krista Luddington said, “I think it is really important to note that Mulgrave is not alone in this, it’s province wide. You look at our neighbouring municipalities and they seem to be feeling the crunch as well…The service that we’re getting, it’s a lot to put on a town of 627 people.”

NSFM hears municipal concerns

Amanda McDougall, president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Municipalities, agrees with Luddington’s assessment. In an interview on May 25, she told The Journal, “What we’re hearing is fear, fear from municipalities; that concept of potential retroactive payments on top of these increasing policing costs, could, quite frankly, be crippling to different municipal units.”

The retroactive payment to which McDougall is referring is payment due to RCMP members under the recently ratified contract between the federal government and the union representing RCMP members. How and on whom this cost will fall has yet to be determined.

McDougall said, “If they [municipalities] are going to be [charged] some gigantic sum of retroactive payments throughout this year, that they have not budgeted for, what happens? How do they pay it…That has been very problematic from the get-go.”

The NSFM and the national body, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, have been lobbying for the federal government “to step up and cover retroactive cost for members,” said McDougall.

Looking at policing overall, McDougall said she’s observed, over the years, conversations on provincial policing and shared services amongst regions.

“That’s where we, as NSFM, we can help facilitate conversations, we are an advocacy organization. If there are questions from our members coming up around potential policy at the provincial level, regionalization and modernization of policing for regions – we can facilitate conversations and definitely advocate on behalf of our membership. But, right now, a lot of the work has been ensuring that municipal units are not going to be burdened with huge sums of retroactive payments…The small municipal units, it’s an unfair burden to put on them without the proper consultation.”

MODG sees no alternative

MODG Warden Vernon Pitts said of the potential payment of the retroactive pay for RCMP members, “If it falls on us and it is a regulation, it’s legislated, we have to pay it. We don’t have any say in that.”

In the wider discussion about rising policing cost in regard to RCMP service, Pitts said, “You have some people saying it is costing too much for policing…we should have our own. That’s not feasible.”

Pitts said the MODG had investigated the cost of its own policing service several years ago but, after assessing salary, cost of equipment, office space, housing, not to mention the cost if a major investigation was required, it was clearly out of reach for a rural municipality like the MODG.

When asked if there was anything he would like to see the federal or provincial government do to help municipalities deal with policing cost, Pitts said, “I would like them to sharpen up their negotiation skills. We don’t mind paying for a service. Our council is of the opinion [that] we are getting a good service. We have no complaints with the RCMP in the manner in which they have been doing business here. Our crime rates are down, our stats are down. I think it is working well and it’s a good working relationship we have with them. The cost is another issue, that’s neither here nor there, we do have to have policing. And I think they’re the best organization to be doing the policing. It’s like one stop shopping…we’re getting what we paid for with the RCMP, we’re getting bang for our buck.”

Future of policing

The rising cost of policing, questions raised about the effectiveness of the RCMP in the Mass Casualty Commission, and the defund the police movement spurred by the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement have all converged to bring the future of policing into question. The Journal spoke with Dr. Stephen Schneider, a Saint Mary’s University criminology professor, about the issue.

“One of the greatest challenges facing municipal governments is the cost of effective policing … and certainly the RCMP is under an incredible amount of scrutiny right now for a number of reasons, one of which is whether or not they should be providing federal, provincial and municipal policing service, and whether or not the towns and municipalities that contract for these municipal services are getting the bang for their buck…the cost of policing is increasing significantly and it’s putting significant strain on municipal budgets,” said Schneider.

The defund the police movement asks if investing in policing is the best use of government money “or should we be putting it into organizations, or strategies, or programs that can better address the root cause of a problem, including in rural areas,” Schneider said.

Many municipalities haven’t looked beyond the model of policing, whether done by the RCMP or a municipal run force, and Schneider said, “There are not a lot of alternative models out there…one is where municipal governments find alternatives to police to address non-criminal code matters. A vast majority of policing has nothing to do with crime. It has to do with them being a taxi service, dealing with mental health problems, disorder problems like trespassing, public drunkenness, drug use. But whether it is a rural or urban area, the question is, are police the most effective and efficient use of resources to address many of these problems that are not criminal code problems, that are not drug problems? The idea is that police just focus on crime, criminal code offences, drug offences, and let other issues be addressed by volunteers, civilians or non-governmental organizations, community-based groups, more crime prevention, more involvement of neighbourhoods in patrolling their own areas, for example.”

Schneider further explained the concept: “In academia it’s what we call a co-production of public safety and that is where everybody is involved in producing public safety not just the police. We’ve deluded ourselves for too long thinking that police are the only agency out there to deal with crime and disorder problems, which is not true. Whether you’re in a rural or urban setting, a lot more thought has to be given to alternative models of public safety in which the police are focused on criminal code offences and other social problems are dealt with by more appropriate agencies.”

Schneider concluded, “We really need to rethink how we deal with crime and disorder problems in society. We can’t simply rely only on police, they’re too expensive and the whole criminal justice system is generally, and ironically, an ineffective way to deal with crime. More power has to be handed to the community itself; not the town council, not the government, not the police but community members.”

Lois Ann Dort, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Guysborough Journal

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