City police departments keep getting served up a bigger piece of the budget pie by their civic political leaders
In my previous job I had the pleasure of meeting a number of police chiefs from both Metro Vancouver and across Canada. Jim Chu is Vancouver's Chief Constable and he is someone I got to know well in my tenure in the Mayor's office. You recall that Chu, a truly calming figure if you ever met one, came into the post after Jamie Graham (now Chief of Police for Victoria) left amidst controversy.
When I first started in my new post as Chief of Staff, I was briefed regarding the upcoming budget and how costly it would be to keep the City's Finest up and running. In fact, the police budget is to the city, what health care and education budgets are to the provinces. In short, you can never put enough into the system to appease an insatiable appetite for more services.
It is important to note that unlike all other city department heads, the chief of your local police "department" likely doesn't report directly to the city manager. Rather, they report to a board of lay citizens.
The premise behind this is that nobody wants the chief to go cap in hand to a city manager every time they want to conduct an investigation. From a law and order perspective, I think everyone would agree this is a good thing.
Where the system breaks down is when an aggressive chief of police is simply interested in empire building and forgets there are limited resources at the city. Unfortunately, the way the current police budgeting system is structured it almost encourages empire building. Let me explain why.
As I stated previously, in non-RCMP serviced cities, the police chief reports to a politically appointed board [chaired by the mayor] which consists of a number of well-intentioned and upstanding citizens. The cold reality is that more often than not, board members are not experts in best practices for police budgeting and their board appointment is something they do in their spare time.
Board duties normally consist of setting general policy guidelines and recommending to council the human resources complement they need to meet their objective of reducing crime and increasing public safety.
Unfortunatey, as is often the case, they are making these human resource demands in isolation from the rest of the city’s priorities and budgeting process. This is a big flaw in the system.
That’s why so many boards make unrealistic demands to their city councils to hire hundreds of new police officers while not understanding what the potential impact will be on other city services.
Don't blame the board. Their mandate, plain and simple, is to support the men and women in blue, not meet the needs of cost-cutting civic politicians.
I discovered during my time at Vancouver City Hall that some staff refer to hefty police budget requests as the “annual pilgrimage.”
Armed with board and public support, and the requisite independent consultant analysis justifying their ask, a chief will march into the city's corporate management team meetings indicating he/she needs an increase to their budget.
For other city department heads with less sex appeal, this is demoralizing. These big financial asks for more cops means other department heads are inevitably asked to propose cuts to their budgets in order to reduce the financial impacts to taxpayers.
When cities are faced with spending scare tax dollars for more police officers to fight crime, which has been dropping steadily over the last decade, or hire a couple of civil engineers, the cops win out almost every time. Meanwhile, things like after school programs, arts funding and road repairs will play second fiddle.
In the City of Winnipeg, they’ve taken a slightly different approach. When it comes to budgeting and administration, the chief of police actually reports to the city manager. No more requests to council to hire hundreds of new police or to purchase cool military-style speed boats to patrol the Red River. That is, unless they fit into the broader budgeting priorities.
Of course their city manager stays out of police operations, as they should, but they now force police management to look at ways of reducing their costs and limiting requests. This is a good thing.
In Vancouver, City staff have privately grumbled for years that their police department has duplicate human resource, communication and marketing departments to name but a few. Does the VPD really need to have its own human resources department when the City of Vancouver already has one?
There are also several FTEs (full time equivelents) in the police communications department who do nothing but crank out daily news conferences to make sure our local media are provided with the latest and greatest breaking news. It's a great service, but it comes with a hefty price tag.
If Vancouver's police department wanted to reduce future tax increases, wouldn't they hire less costly civilians to conduct their daily news conferences instead of sworn officers? I'm pretty confident this move would not only save tax dollars, it would get a few more police back on the street fighting crime, instead of fielding media calls.
It's time cities take a hard look at how police budgets are developed, otherwise, the financial repercussions will continue to be felt throughout the system.