The Last Word on Crime and Police — For Now

Blog, Local Government, Steve Lafleur (historic), Uncategorized

The Frontier Centre recently released a backgrounder I co-authored over the last few months on the effect of police levels on crime. The conclusion was simple: the evidence suggests that Canadian cities have sufficient police resources. This has predictably ruffled some feathers. I’ll address some of the criticisms I’ve received, though, frankly, most of the points were already addressed in the paper.

The research was motivated by the media reaction to a series of high profile homicides in Toronto, as well as the ongoing perception that Western Canadian cities are dangerous.  My concern was that decisions about police staffing levels have more to do with emotion than considered analysis. My hope was that laying out the statistics would help broaden the discussion over crime prevention since, statistically, having more police does not necessarily lead to less crime. Indeed, as it happens, cities with more officers have more crime. The causality almost certainly runs the other way — cities with more crime hire more officers — but that doesn’t undermine the argument. In fact, it strengthens the argument. After all, if police staff levels were such a major factor, cities with more police would see large declines in crime. Unfortunately, deterring crime isn’t simple. Everything from the climate to demographics helps determine the level of crime.

The most critical responses I’ve received were from Tom Brodbeck of the Winnipeg Sun, and the editorial board of the same publication. Brodbeck pointed to a 2004 study that concluded 17 countries have lower victimization rates than Canada. Aside from the obvious counter-argument that crime decreased dramatically in North America since that study, most of the countries he singled out as safer have higher median ages than Canada (Japanese, Italian, and German residents are an average of 3 years older than Canadians). As we pointed out in the report, factors such as demographics matter a great deal in determining crime levels. Older people simply do not commit as many crimes as younger people.

More troubling is Mr.Brodbeck’s assertion that we wish to “throw in the towel” on crime, simply because we concluded that hiring more officers is unlikely to make Canadian cities safer. That type of rhetoric obfuscates from serious debate on how to improve public safety. True, we did note the many reasons why it is unlikely we can dramatically reduce crime levels from their current levels. For instance, short of stationing officers in every home, we will never reduce the level of domestic violence to zero. Similarly, we’re never going to stop young men from fighting over young ladies, and gang members from fighting turf wars. People often act irrationally. We can’t stop that. But we did point to some strategies that cities can use to help curb crime, such as programs for youths who are at risk of joining gangs, and freeing up existing officers to patrol distressed neighourhoods. We can reduce crime. We just need to recognize that there are limits to how much governments can do to that end.

So long as willingness to hand blank cheques to police organizations is the litmus test for whether politicians are serious about reducing crime, we will never have efficient policing practices. We need to weigh the costs and benefits of police services, just like any other government services. While the men and women who police our cities do commendable work, we need to make sure that they are using their resources as efficiently as possible before even considering allocating them further resources. We are not at that point yet.