Rethinking the Police

Commentary, Policing, Frontier Centre

A recent Statistics Canada report on police personnel and expenditures reveals that Manitoba has the most police officers per capita in Canada. When the agency compared cities, it found Winnipeg employs 189.3 officers per 100,000 residents, the second highest ratio in Canada. Our city has 25% more police per capita than Calgary, 21% more than Edmonton, and 30% more than London, Ontario. In everyday language, Winnipeg would have 260 fewer officers if it staffed like Edmonton, 306 fewer if like Calgary or 365 fewer if like London.

These figures are not surprising. Personnel levels throughout other city operations are also higher than average, and they come at a cost. At roughly $50,000 a pop, 300 extra officers translates into a cool $15 million of additional community expenditure.

This analysis will ruffle some feathers. Certainly, no candidate in the upcoming civic election has dared suggest Winnipeg could survive with fewer police officers. They prefer, instead, to give their voters the usual unhelpful mush. Why? In politics, they think people link more police with less crime. Fewer constables, in this simple paradigm, automatically translate into more break-ins, muggings and murders. However, everyday experience and StatsCan data tell us that our having a larger force has not led to a lower rate of criminal activity.

When police departments are taken off the pedestal, substantial economies can be found.

Winnipeg’s overuse of two-officer patrol cars is the most obvious waste of resources. Many studies have shown that one-officer cars are more cost-effective and at least as safe as two-officer cars. They also respond to emergency calls faster. In high-risk incidents cities deploy two officer cars; but, for the most part, one-officer cars are the rule. For example, the RCMP mainly deploys one-officer cars, Saskatoon police officers drive alone until 11:00 P.M., and Indianapolis routinely sends out single-officer cars but dispatches more than one vehicle on "hot" or serious runs.

Patrol cars are also a costly and less effective crime-control tool. So police departments are moving back to their roots — back to community policing. Under this arrangement, police officers no longer come across as aliens spilling out of space pods in response to problems. Instead, community policing in its most effective form brings back the beat officer to walk the neighbourhood, build bridges to locals and intercept difficult situations before they become threatening.

In its purest form, community policing as practiced in Japan has officers actually living in the neighbourhood stations. Unlike community police stations in Winnipeg, which close down at 8 P.M. (about the time criminals go to work), their stations operate 24 hours a day.

In Maricopa County, which serves Phoenix, Arizona – where government is actually run for the citizens — there are over 2000 members in groups known as "Sheriff’s Posses". These are unpaid part-time employees or volunteers who receive non-wage benefits and exercise police powers under the supervision of regular officers. The county provides them with training, but Posse groups pay for their own patrol cars, equipment and uniforms through member dues, fundraising activities and community donations. Posse members assist in a variety of tasks, often accompanying regular officers on patrols.

We can never downplay the value of our police. They are "the thin blue line" who perform a critical community function that occasionally has lethal consequences for them. But there is plenty of room for rethinking the structure of Winnipeg’s police services. We need leadership to re-establish control over the service. Then we could proceed with one-officer cars, fewer cars, 24-hour community policing with performance bonuses linked to local crime reduction, and the intelligent use of trained volunteers.