OP-ED: The true cost of policing — It’s not as simple as you think

Over the past several years, municipalities, provinces and states across North America have grown increasingly concerned about rising policing costs, at the same time they have faced little to no increase in local tax revenues. Frankly, in many cases it’s gone from a “do more with less” model to a “do everything with nothing” reality.

Increasing salaries as well as rising costs for technology, vehicles and fuel have caused police and political leaders to closely examine how to get the best bang for their dwindling dollar, through a variety of service delivery model options.

Most police chiefs and boards have been wrestling with this dilemma for at least 10 years. They’ve met in groups, shared ideas and best practices and consulted with academics and policing experts across jurisdictions to try and find valid solutions. It has been a difficult process and at a time when reported crime in a number of categories has actually dropped.

The falling crime rate argument is a bit of a misnomer. Firstly, crime is much more complex to investigate now than it was 30 years ago. In 2016 the police don’t only have to prove who committed the crime, they need to prove that every other person in the free world didn’t. Every interview is recorded and transcribed now. When charges are laid, terra-bytes of disclosure are prepared, under very tight timelines. The CSI world we live in also requires police to examine crime scenes in ways unimagined decades ago and must locate and process digital information in storage devices like tablets, phones and computers. Search warrant and production order processes are very complex. Hundreds of officers are most often involved in cases that years ago may have been staffed with a handful.

Secondly, falling crime rates don’t happen through the waving of a magic wand, but through an increased focus on prevention programs, which take time, people and funding. It is hugely cheaper to prevent crimes than it is to respond, investigate, prosecute and incarcerate. But the more important benefit is the reduction in victimization. Preventing vulnerable people from being exploited, harmed or robbed of their property is always the goal and current prevention models including crime abatement strategies and the “community mobilization” concept which brings police, various social service agencies, educators and community groups together to mitigate societal conditions that lead to crime, are having significant impacts. That work can’t be stopped on a dime however, or crime rates will grow rather than diminish.

New and demanding crimes are occurring, like cyber-crime – through organized crime groups that know no borders; child exploitation and internet bullying; as well as radicalization and terrorist attacks in western societies – just to name a few. They are all resource intensive and costly to address, to say the least.

From a staffing perspective, which encompasses the vast majority of most police budgets, in days gone by many police services didn’t have rigorous staffing methodologies, but simply had established complements that had existed for many years, combined with shift rosters that had consistent staff numbers working regardless of the day or time of the week. Sound minds know that this cannot continue and much work is underway at many levels to make significant change, however it is most often a very difficult collective bargaining issue, between the Police Services Boards and the police associations, or between the provinces/states and their police officers.