Policing costs keep rising while crime rates fall

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Appeared in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix and Chronicle-Journal

A meeting this summer of Ontario municipalities was marked by a growing concern about the rising costs of police services in Canada, with the president of the group concluding, "It is not sustainable."

It's a sentiment being expressed across the country. A new study published by the Fraser Institute examines trends in crime rates and police resources in Canada and seeks to better understand whether police services could be more efficient. The findings may be interesting to municipal leaders everywhere and to Canadian taxpayers.

Canadian policing costs and staffing levels have grown over the past decade despite a dramatic fall in crime rates. Between 2001 and 2012, police officers per 100,000 of population in Canada rose by nine per cent while the crime rate declined by 26 per cent. Moreover, real per capita police expenditures in Canada between 2001 and 2012 rose 33 per cent while criminal code incidents per officer declined 32 per cent.

What does this mean for provinces and municipalities?

Police officers per 100,000 of population and real per capita police expenditures are generally highest in the sparsely populated territories. Across the provinces, in 2013 the number of police officers per 100,000 of population was the highest in Manitoba at 213, and lowest in Prince Edward Island at 160. Real per capita police expenditures in 2012 were the highest in Ontario at $272.50 (2002 dollars) and lowest in Prince Edward Island at $148.20.

There is also substantial variation in the number of police officers per 100,000 of population across major Canadian Census Metropolitan Areas (CMAs). However, the trend certainly has been going up. Indeed, from 2001 to 2013, the median number of police officers per 100,000 for major CMAs grew to 160 from 149.5.

While these figures are interesting, many factors contribute to the size and cost of a municipality's police force.

Policing has evolved and touches upon a wider range of problem social behaviours that have affected police expenditure growth. And of course, a wide range of local circumstances such as socio-economic factors, demographics, collective bargaining agreements, new service demands and response times influence staffing and cost.

Still, the public regards crime fighting as the prime police responsibility, and crime rates remain the most consistent and broadly available benchmark to measure outcomes. They are a more tangible productivity outcome than call volumes or the fulfilment of other bureaucratic requirements.

After controlling for crime rates and other socioeconomic factors, the study estimates the "efficiency" of police staffing across 32 Canadian cities by comparing a predicted number of police officers per 100,000 to the actual staffing numbers.

Using this methodology, Kelowna, Moncton and Ottawa-Gatineau were found to have the most efficient staffing levels, with their actual numbers of police officers per 100,000 of population substantially below what was predicted they could have.

Closely following them and also in the top 10 most efficient services are Saguenay, Quebec, Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge, Trois-Rivières, Kingston, Greater Sudbury, and Sherbrooke.

Saint John, Winnipeg and Windsor had the least efficient staffing levels with actual numbers well above what our analysis would predict. Also in the bottom 10 are St. Catharines-Niagara, Abbotsford-Mission, Thunder Bay, St. John's, Peterborough, Regina and Victoria.

As well as inefficient use of police resources, some of these differences may reflect other more difficult to quantify local socioeconomic differences that raise unique challenges to policing.

These can include differences in bureaucratic and administrative requirements, local variations in crime composition, workloads, collective agreements, community preferences, and other geographic or police technology issues.

However, these results are a necessary first step to better understanding the efficiency of police resources in Canada.

Given the variations in police staffing, there is substantial scope for police forces across Canada to improve their performance when it comes to more efficient operation.

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