Law360 Canada (January 23, 2024, 9:06 AM EST)
It is budget time in my hometown of Cobourg, Ont. Policing is the costliest municipal service, accounting for almost half the property owners’ tax levy.
Cobourg’s police service is the most oversized line item on the town’s budget. This year, the police sought an increase of 6.3 per cent. Council has approved the addition of four new constables to the Cobourg force.
Cobourg taxpayers will likely not object to the increase. Like other municipalities in Canada, a major public issue in Cobourg is an encampment of people now homeless, some with mental health issues, and the open drug usage on downtown streets. The need for increased policing costs is justified, the Cobourg Police Services Board maintains, because of statistical proof that the crime severity index shows an increase in violent crime. Cobourg’s 2022 Crime Severity Index (CSI) ranking reflects trends seen by local police.
The CSI was designed to track changes in the severity of police-reported crime year to year. Statistics Canada releases the CSI annually (available back to 1998). Every crime is given a weight based on the seriousness of the offence.
There are three main CSI categories: Overall CSI, violent CSI, and non-violent CSI. There are 330 participating police services ranked in the three categories. The ranking is from one, representing higher crime severity, to 330, representing the lowest crime severity.
In 2022, across Canada, the Overall CSI increased by four per cent compared to 2021, the violent CSI rose by five per cent in 2022, and the non-violent CSI increased by four per cent. In Ontario, the overall CSI increased by 4.1 per cent, the violent CSI increased by 6.7 per cent, and the non-violent CSI increased by 2.6 per cent. In 2022, Cobourg ranked 140 in the Overall CSI compared to 126 in 2021. In 2022, Cobourg’s ranking for violent crime increased, and the non-violent CSI decreased.
Increasing crime rates scare people. The political response is that throwing money at the problem is the cure. A recent Ontario public policy announcement exclaimed, “The Ontario government is fighting back against crime and building safer communities by investing more than $6 million in crime prevention initiatives. The funds, forfeited to the province as proceeds of crime following criminal prosecutions, will be used to support 23 projects by law enforcement agencies and community partners.”
It added, “‘We’re using every tool, including cash and proceeds seized from criminals, to prevent crime and protect our communities,’ said Solicitor General Michael Kerzner. ‘Thanks to the hard work of our men and women in uniform, these funds are being reinvested back into our communities to help support victims, educate youth and increase awareness about crimes such as gang violence and hate.’”
Is the money being misspent? A recent study published by researchers at the University of Toronto concludes that increasing police budgets doesn’t necessarily reduce crime rates in Canada. The study, published in Canadian Public Policy, a peer-reviewed academic journal, by lead author Mélanie Seabrook, uses CSI figures and municipal funding to examine the benefit of increased spending in fighting crime.
CBC News investigative reporter Bobby Hristova investigated the study and spoke with Christopher Schneider, a sociology professor at Manitoba’s Brandon University. Schneider said while the paper shows increasing police budgets aren’t necessarily making communities safer, many people feel safe when they hear councillors say they’re investing more money in police services. Schneider said it may be an “uphill battle” to convince some people the money could be better spent elsewhere.
The University of Toronto study looked at the crime severity index of several municipalities and the increase in police budgets. It found that there was also no significant correlation between funding and crime rates.
University of British Columbia law professor Benjamin Perrin has also written about the increased use of police, especially when dealing with the homeless, mental health issues and addiction. He wrote, “Tragically, ongoing research has highlighted three common policing approaches that, rather than ensuring public safety, are unnecessarily claiming lives: police responding to mental health “wellness checks,” involuntary displacement of people experiencing homelessness, and seizures of illicit substances.
There are better approaches to each of these societal challenges than policing.
He concludes, “In conclusion, we need to stop deploying armed police officers to respond to mental health, homelessness and substance-use issues. Policing is the wrong tool for these societal challenges and is making things worse. The path forward lies in dismantling flawed practices and following compassionate, evidence-based solutions that truly serve and protect all members of our communities.”
There is a prevailing notion that increasing police presence will alleviate crime and result in safer communities. Even though that belief has been criticized as ineffective, the political benefit of getting tough on crime will likely prevail.
John L. Hill practised and taught prison law until his retirement. He holds a J.D. from Queen’s and LL.M. in constitutional law from Osgoode Hall. He is also the author of Pine Box Parole: Terry Fitzsimmons and the Quest to End Solitary Confinement (Durvile & UpRoute Books). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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