Last week, the head of the Prince Albert Police Service attended a national summit on the economics of policing in Ottawa.
Organized by Public Safety Canada, the unprecedented summit brought together delegates from all segments of police across the country to deliver a stark message: Find ways to innovate through structural reforms or prepare for drastic cutbacks.
“This was something that’s never happened before, and it’s only because of the economic downturn in some other parts of the world and the United States,” Chief Cooper said of the summit.
“It’s forced a shrinking of police budgets, and police leaders around the world have had to sort of refocus on how they’re going to provide public safety in an economy that’s not exactly friendly to municipal or provincial budgets.”
Lasting two days from Jan. 16-17, the conference brought together police executives from coast to coast with representatives of police associations, boards and research departments. Delegates from the RCMP were also present.
Representatives from all three levels of government attended the summit, where one of the chief topics of discussion was the role of government in policing. Some shared homegrown success stories for other areas to emulate.
“There were some MLAs from different provinces, including our own, and they had provided some best practices on ways they streamlined legal processes,” Cooper said.
“For example, in British Columbia, they approach impaired driving in a different way than we do here. They’ve taken it out of a criminal act and made it an administrative act, where you can provide a fine and do a vehicle seizure right at the time, and it’s streamlined the core process and they feel it’s saved lives. So it’s still providing a policing service, it’s doing it more efficiently.”
Western Canada may not have been as affected by the economic downturn as other regions, but efficiency has been a core principle for the Prince Albert Police Service for several years.
The department has a stringent internal review process for its own budget and has explored cost-cutting measures such as public-private partnerships. Cooper cited the bylaw enforcement unit and Hub and Core Initiative as successful examples of providing professional responses at lower cost to the public.
Although Prince Albert police will take into account suggestions from the conference, Cooper anticipated overall changes to be minimal.
“I don’t think it’ll change a lot of things in Prince Albert, other than maybe how we communicate,” he said. “What I took away from the conference, I guess, is the fact that we need to change how we evaluate the police’s role in our city.
Police leaders around the world have had to sort of refocus on how they’re going to provide public safety in an economy that’s not exactly friendly to municipal or provincial budgets. - Police Chief Troy Cooper
“We need to stop measuring ourselves against the crime rates. Most of what we do has nothing to do with crime, and we know that if the community expects certain things of us, then there’s a cost associated to that.”
Indeed, as shrinking budgets have cut into available funds for social services, police across the country have found themselves increasingly responsible for responding to social problems such as addictions, homelessness, poverty and mental health -- a fact that Cooper appeared more and more resigned to.
“We started off … trying to find some way to move that responsibility to other agencies, and I think it’s probably time we realized that there is no other agency for those things to be moved to, and that just part of policing historically is going to be dealing with all the social issues that go with the community,” Cooper said.
The challenge, he added, is finding ways to address those issues more efficiently.
While larger cities such as Vancouver have begun contracting out services to private companies to save money, Prince Albert’s smaller size precludes such an option. Instead, department bean-counters have focused on ways to provide the same services with fewer resources.
One of the best methods for cutting costs appears to be taking a more preventative approach to crime.
“I think police are returning to that concept that their role is prevention of crime -- not solving crime, not identifying crime, but preventing it -- and of course that is more efficient, so that is one of the best practices,” Cooper said.
“There was some discussion on research that suggests crime should be treated like pollution and that you identify the people who are polluting and make the polluter pay … In police language, that means root cause issues: Find the drivers of crime in your community and take steps to make sure that that there’s an action plan for them, and I think in our case we’re looking at a regional outcall strategy.
“We know that alcohol in our community drives crime, period, and so if we can find some way to have alcohol consumed and sold responsibly … it will control our crime rates here and it’ll be a preventative measure, and we think it’s an efficient way to do business.”
A further summit of police chiefs from Western Canada is scheduled for April.