New Sask. marshals service 'completely unnecessary,' police union argues

 Christine Tell, Saskatchewan's minister of corrections, policing and public safety, says the marshals service she announced on Thursday would report 'indirectly' to her.  (Heywood Yu/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Christine Tell, Saskatchewan's minister of corrections, policing and public safety, says the marshals service she announced on Thursday would report 'indirectly' to her. (Heywood Yu/The Canadian Press - image credit)

The marshals service announced by the Saskatchewan government on Thursday is "completely unnecessary," according to the union that represents RCMP officers.

"It's disappointing to us," Morgan Buckingham, regional director for the National Police Federation in Saskatchewan, said Friday. "It's providing a duplicate segmented service."

Buckingham represents 1,350 members in "F" division in Saskatchewan and 350 members at the RCMP training depot in Regina.

On Thursday, Christine Tell, minister of corrections, policing and public safety, announced the new service, which would be fully operational by 2026, will cost $20 million annually and be staffed with 70 officers.

Tell, a former police officer and former head of the Regina Police Association, says the force would consist of experienced officers and offer a "higher level of policing."

She says the service would work to support existing forces while also conducting "proactive investigations," and handle everything from drug trafficking to cattle theft.

While the marshals service would fall under the umbrella of Tell's ministry, she said it would report "indirectly" to her office.

No consultation

Buckingham says Tell and the provincial government made no effort to discuss their plan with existing policing organizations.

"It is really unfortunate to us that there was no consultation with the National Police Federation, the RCMP, the Saskatchewan Association of Chiefs of Police or the Saskatchewan Federation of Police Officers," Buckingham said.

He said the RCMP and municipal forces are "highly sophisticated" that work well together.

"When you bring in another agency with different training standards, different intervention options, different lines of communication, different radios, it's going to lead to bigger issues when we're responding to events and may lead to an increase and risk to police and public safety."

Buckingham says the cost to taxpayers is significant: "The start-up cost for this will be very big and there's a lot of hidden costs."

Buckingham says the $20 million in annual cost cited by the province does not include start-up costs of training, vehicles, buildings, equipment, firearms, communications, and computers.

He cited the startup costs for the Surrey Police Service with 150 officers was $100 million. The British Columbia city has been working to transition from RCMP to a municipal service.

Buckingham argues the government's investment would be better spent on existing resources and agencies.

He said he does not believe officers would leave their jobs and their pensions to go to an "unknown commodity."

"Where would they be getting these bodies from to fill this police agency?" he said.

Buckingham says the federation is "keeping an eye on" potential creation of provincial police forces, and said there are "misconceptions" that the force takes orders from Ottawa.

"I don't think its an secret the Saskatchewan government has frustrations with Ottawa and control of its police force," Buckingham said. "The [RCMP] commanding officer, Rhonda Blackmore, deals with the ministry of policing to receive her priorities. It's a contract and we're accountable to the people of Saskatchewan."

Marshals could be pilot for provincial force

The Saskatchewan and federal governments have a signed agreement making the RCMP the provincial police force until 2032.

Saskatchewan covers 70 per cent of the costs with the federal government covering the remainder.

On Thursday, Tell said the government is "absolutely" committed to maintaining its contract with the RCMP, saying Mounties are "our provincial police."

The government's 2021 throne speech mentioned a desire to expand provincial autonomy which included "the creation of a provincial police force to complement municipal police forces and the RCMP."

Rick Ruddell, professor of justice studies at the University of Regina, says the province may be using the marshals service as a initial step in creating a larger force.

"I think that the province might be looking at this as maybe a pilot approach," he said. "I think that they might be using it to test the waters and to see how the challenges of starting their own police service."

Ruddell says Alberta is one province further down the road toward a potential provincial force.

A 2021 study by PriceWaterhouseCoopers said a new force would cost Alberta $735 million each year, and $366 million to start up.

The Alberta government spends $500 million annually on the RCMP.

Saskatchewan spends approximately $211 million on the RCMP annually.

"I think there's an interest in the Prairie provinces for provincial police services. I think a lot of provinces would like to see have a little bit more whether you want to call it self-determination in terms of their policing at the provincial level," Ruddell said.

Rural residents concerned

Ruddell says in his research, rural residents cite concerns over the number of police resources.

"We've done survey work with rural residents in Saskatchewan and they tend to be very supportive of the police, but they realize that things like response times are very slow so they would like to see more boots on the ground."

Ruddell said in rural communities throughout Canada "people feel vulnerable, isolated, and fearful."

"People in the countryside say is they want more police visibility, they want more officers on the, you know, boots on the ground and they want to have professional, well-trained officers responding to their calls."

Ruddell says the provincial government has responded by creating targeted policing teams and expanding enforcement powers of conservation and highway traffic safety officers.

Targeting root causes vs. enforcement

Irvin Waller, a criminologist and professor emeritus at the University of Ottawa said at first glance the province is attempting to focus solely on enforcement with its marshals service, rather than spending money on addressing root causes of crime.

"I think giving $20 million to the upstream preventive actions that stopped the violence before it happens would have some impact."

Waller says the government could focus on providing training and job opportunities in disadvantaged areas and having people working on the streets in cities to "meet people involved in violence."

"Saskatchewan can significantly reduce the levels of property and violent crime by setting up a high-level office to make the shifts in planning and investments into prevention that stops crime and violence before it happens."

Addressing risk factors will have a bigger impact than "waiting four years for an enforcement solution that might marginally increase the certainty of detection," Waller said.

"We know very clearly the best way to stop these sorts of problems is not more policing. It doesn't necessarily do harm, but it doesn't give us the sort of reductions the public wants, and it doesn't give it in the short-term either."