photo by Ian Smith, Vancouver Sun
Cities across Canada are grappling with having to balance budgets amidst an economic downturn. No stones are being left unturned within departments, as city managers across the country come to grips with dropping revenue sources and rising costs.
The largest expense for almost every major urban centre is policing. Policing budgets are to the cities, what health care and education budgets are to the provinces: large and insatiable.
Just as it is difficult to deny funding requests for more doctors, nurses and teachers, it is equally difficult for a mayor and council to refuse requests to hire more police officers. As a politician, it’s simply political suicide to take on your own police department. That's why none of them do it.
While cities look to trim costs, police departments are getting ever more sophisticated and creative in how they approach council for new funding.
The reason they need to be creative is that crime rates in our major urban centres have been plummeting across Canada over the last decade, largely thanks to demographic shifts. Fewer young men per capita means lower crime.
Imagine working in the private sector and asking your CEO to hire hundreds of more staff at a time when all projections show declining sales. It would never happen. But that's been the reality for police budgets in major cities all across Canada.
There is a fear of some police departments and their unions that city governments (and the people who vote them in) will eventually catch on to what is happening.
This fear recently manifested itself in Vancouver whereby the police union even threatened a lawsuit with the mere suggestion by the duly elected officials that they might provide tax dollars to fund a “tiered” approach to policing. An approach that in the long-run would likely result in reduced crime and cost to city taxpayers.
So what is“tiered” policing and why do some police unions see it as a threat?
The proponents of tiered-policing believe we need more than well paid sworn officers with tonnes of specialized training to help tackle crime. They believe sworn police officers and civilian partners should work together in a coordinated way to keep our city streets safe. They are less concerned with whether someone pays union dues and more concerned about lowering crime and keeping people safe.
By way of an analogy, you would never expect to walk into your dental office and have your dentist sitting at the front desk, cleaning your teeth, and re-booking your next appointment. That’s because dentists take a “tiered” approach to dentistry. They hire less costly hygienists and administrative staff to perform functions they know would be too costly for a dentist to perform.
A good example of tiered policing is how some cities have successfully trained their sanitation engineers (you call them garbage men) to become the eyes and ears on the streets. They are provided with basic training to locate suspect grow-ops and other suspicious activities. It costs almost nothing to implement, but once active, they work closely with the city police to keep our streets safe.
There are plenty of other examples of tiered policing such as community policing offices, Blockwatch, etc. However, one initiative appears to have ruffled more than a few feathers.
In 2006, Vancouver Council initiated something called Project Civil City (PCC). The goal was to reduce street disorder, homelessness and open drug use by taking a more holistic approach than simply throwing more cops at the problem.
As the former mayor said, “I’ve never seen solving homelessness and reducing street disorder as the responsibility of our Chief of Police. We need to take a different approach.”
One initiative that flowed from PCC was an effort to provide public financing to support and dramatically expand the successful ambassador program. For those not familiar, the non-unionized ambassadors wear bright red suits and walk the beat throughout Vancouver’s downtown core.
Not only are they fully certified by the Province of BC as professional security guards, they are also provided with specialized trained in how to assist homeless people and give tourists information.
It should be noted that the ambassador program has the support of the Chief of Police and is a big hit with local residents and tourists alike. I believe that's because ambassadors actually interface with the general public on almost every street corner. They walk the beat like many officers used to.
You would think that the City offering public funds to provide more “eyes and ears” on the street to support the rank and file constables would have been applauded by the police union. Especially in view of how many additional police officers the City of Vancouver funded over the last six years (both COPE and NPA administrations).
So why is the police union so opposed to this initiative? I believe it lies in what most unions across the world fear most – contracting out. They see funding the ambassador program as the thin edge of the wedge.
A sworn police officer can cost city taxpayers over $100K per annum, while the funding of an ambassador is less than half that cost. An ambassador can be hired, trained and patrolling the streets in less than three months. This is considerably less time than it takes to get a sworn officer on the street. Ambassadors are also not unionized.
I encourage you to check out a well-written report from independent and qualified City staff outlining the benefits and drawbacks of funding the ambassador program. You be the judge.
Police management support the ambassadors because they know it is a cost effective way of helping to gather intelligence and secure our streets. They also support them because like it or not, the ambassadors form a pool of individuals who could be recruited to become the police of tomorrow. And we all know the recruiting challenges that city police forces are dealing with across the country.
The police union, vocal supporters of Vision Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, have called on him to shut down this experiment. On this one I believe ideology will prevail and the ambassador program will be gone by early next year.
That would be a real shame because there are a lot of cost-conscious city managers, police chiefs and beleaguered taxpayers out there who were keenly watching how Vancouver’s experiment in tiered policing would turn out.