Opinion: Don't defund but do rethink the police

© Provided by Financial Post Complementing the work of police officers with security agents has been tried successfully in countries like the United Kingdom.

Rising crime rates have required Canadian police forces to reconcile managing their budgets with fighting crime. It’s not an easy balance to strike. Yet there is a simple way to save hundreds of millions of dollars: re-think the division of labour for police.

Modern police officers receive extensive training that allows them to carry out tasks requiring an impressive combination of physical, cognitive, emotional, and interpersonal skills. Yet it is estimated that fewer than 10 per cent of the tasks officers carry out demand all these skills. More and more resources are now used for administrative or non-core tasks — a typical example of mission creep.

An analysis of 30 years of police service data in British Columbia revealed that officers spend 40 per cent of their time on report-writing and other administrative tasks. In Alberta, police officers devote over six million hours a year to such tasks. Much of this administration does not require any particular police skills and could be carried out more efficiently and less expensively by non-police staff. This likely would lead to greater job satisfaction for officers, whose time would be freed up for their core duties, which presumably are what got them into police work in the first place. Traffic management is another area where security personnel could support police officers. They could carry out tasks like patrolling, directing traffic, and responding to the scene of a collision.

A simple accounting exercise shows that big savings could be had if administrative and traffic management duties that strictly do not require the presence of a police officer were entrusted to private security firms. Alberta’s 7,687 police officers earn average yearly compensation of over $133,000, including  benefits. In comparison, a security professional averages just under $53,000.

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Our calculations in a research paper just released by the Montreal Economic Institute on suggest a reallocation of responsibilities could reduce the annual operating expenditures of Alberta police forces by between 11 and 14 per cent — that is, by $171 million to $225 million. These funds could be used to reduce the provincial deficit, finance other spending or improve core policing. Polls suggest Canadians would welcome such an approach. In 2017, 59 per cent of those surveyed were all right with the prospect of private security firms taking over support tasks like the ones mentioned.

It goes without saying that the introduction of security personnel into established police forces should be done in a measured way. With an average attrition rate in Alberta of 3.4 per cent between 2017 and 2019, there could be gradual replacement of officers who retire or leave policing for other reasons. A key point: there would be no need to replace current, active officers — which presumably would help reduce potential resistance to such a transition.

This approach of complementing the work of police officers with security agents has been tried successfully in countries like the United Kingdom and has resulted in reduced crime rates in the communities concerned, as well as increased job satisfaction for officers, who can refocus on work they are passionate about. One London neighborhood saw a 43 per cent decrease in crime rates after just seven months of patrolling by a security firm.

As fiscal pressures continue to mount in Canada, a more sensible allocation of front-line police officers is becoming increasingly important. “De-funding” the police has little appeal for ordinary Canadians, who depend on the police for protection. But re-thinking the police so that less is spent on administration and non-core functions that don’t involve protecting the public may well appeal to large numbers of Canadians.

Krystle Wittevrongel is a public policy analyst at the Montreal Economic Institute.

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