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The RCMP’s thin red line: Is contract policing unsustainable?

INVESTIGATION

The RCMP's thin red line: Is contract policing unsustainable?

Communities across Canada that lack their own police depend on Mounties as the cheaper option. But with forces facing heavy caseloads, staffing crunches and looming unionization, critics wonder if the tradeoff is worth it . Matthew McClearn, Colin Freeze and Sunny Dhillon investigate

RCMP constables in Surrey, B.C., patrol 135A Street, known as ‘the Strip.’ Like many municipalities in B.C., Surrey uses the RCMP for its policing needs instead of maintaining an independent force. The Globe studied how this model works across the B.C. Lower Mainland.

More belowContract policing: A historyInside the RCMP's union-in-waiting


When it comes to policing, B.C.'s Lower Mainland looks like a balkanized state: If you live in Vancouver, officers drive black sedans marked Vancouver Police; drive a few kilometres away, across the Lions Gate Bridge to North Vancouver, and you'll see police cars emblazoned with the RCMP crest.

For many residents, the difference may seem negligible. But an examination of the two forces reveals significant differences: Vancouverites pay about $420 per capita each year for their standalone police force. Residents of North Vancouver pay notably less. Their RCMP-operated municipal force – one of more than a dozen operated by the Mounties in the Lower Mainland – costs $230 per capita.

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How that money translates into deployments on the street varies significantly, too. In Vancouver, taxpayers get one police officer for every 494 people. Residents of North Vancouver, whose streets are patrolled by the RCMP, get a force that's more thinly stretched: one officer for every 952 people.

A similar pattern plays out across the Lower Mainland, where a Globe and Mail investigation reveals that municipalities with RCMP-operated forces pass on significant savings to taxpayers, but the discount appears to come at a cost. Data from 21 municipalities shows that RCMP forces grapple with disproportionately low staffing, while carrying significantly higher caseloads.

RCMP representatives dispute the findings, suggesting that some of the comparisons between RCMP and independent forces are based on "blunt tool" measurements and, in some cases, data that the Mounties capture in different ways. Staff Sergeant Tania Vaughan, a spokeswoman for the police force, adds that, "In order to address crime-related issues, one cannot look solely at police." Socioeconomic factors such as employment and poverty levels play a significant role in crime levels, she said, and issues such as "trust and confidence in police, community satisfaction and community engagement make it difficult to compare jurisdictions on metrics alone."

But labour organizers keen on unionizing the RCMP have highlighted low staffing levels and concerns about pay and work conditions in crosscountry tours over the past year. "You're getting the Dollar Store of police rates when you take a contract from the Mounties," a representative of the fledgling National Police Federation told a handful of officers at a gathering in North Battleford, Sask., last March.

Cash-strapped municipalities aren't complaining. More than 150 municipalities and hundreds of smaller communities currently use Mounties in the place of standalone officers because of the deep discount that the federal institution's contract policing model provides. Through a cost-sharing agreement, Ottawa covers 10 per cent of most policing costs in jurisdictions that opt for RCMP forces. In communities of less than 15,000, the contribution rises to 30 per cent. It's a bargain that many municipalities find too enticing to give up.

The next RCMP commissioner – due to be appointed this year – will face growing pressure from labour organizers to improve salaries and working conditions for officers. And as RCMP costs rise, they may also need to address an increasingly thorny question: What's a Mountie worth to Canadian municipalities?

For the communities that have become addicted to low-cost, subsidized policing, the answer is complicated.

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Surrey, 2013: RCMP officers make an arrest. In the early 2000s, Surrey – which then had some 400 Mounties for a growing population of 400,000 – considered establishing its own police service, but expert witnesses and civil servants dissuaded the city from doing so.

Police jurisdiction

boundaries

Squamish

Upper

Fraser

Valley

RCMP

Independent

Coquitlam

Ridge

Meadows

North

Vancouver

West Vancouver

Port Moody

Mission

Vancouver

Richmond

New Westminster

Delta

White

Rock

Surrey

Abbotsford

Langley

MURAT YUKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: RCMP

Police jurisdiction

boundaries

Squamish

Upper

Fraser

Valley

RCMP

Independent

Coquitlam

Ridge

Meadows

North

Vancouver

West Vancouver

Port Moody

Mission

Vancouver

Richmond

New Westminster

Delta

White

Rock

Surrey

Abbotsford

Langley

MURAT YUKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: RCMP

Police jurisdiction

boundaries

Squamish

Upper

Fraser

Valley

RCMP

Independent

Coquitlam

Ridge

Meadows

North

Vancouver

West Vancouver

Port Moody

Mission

Vancouver

Richmond

New Westminster

Delta

White

Rock

Surrey

Langley

Abbotsford

U.S.

MURAT YUKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: RCMP

The big picture

The Globe and Mail analyzed the Lower Mainland's largest urban centres, examining six independently policed jurisdictions, including the 630,000 people overseen by Vancouver Police Department. We compared them with 15 jurisdictions policed by distinct RCMP detachments, including Surrey, which now has 550,000 people, and Burnaby and Richmond, each with more than 200,000.

The analysis looked at police inputs, such as local tax dollars and staffing levels, and outcomes, such as officer workloads and crime rates.

No single data point tells the whole story. But when combined, a picture emerges: The RCMP staffs its Lower Mainland detachments more thinly than neighbouring, independent jurisdictions, and its officers juggle more cases. This likely has significant implications for the officers and citizens living in those jurisdictions, including fewer cases solved.


Costs and staffing

By the metrics, the RCMP shines in terms of one singular factor – its ability to keep local taxes low. In 2016, ratepayers in most RCMP jurisdictions paid only about half as much toward policing as Vancouverites do.

One reason for the low cost of RCMP forces is the federal government transfer payment. Uncompetitive salaries add another dimension. In 2009 the federal government enacted a law to restrict growth in mounting salaries and other employment-related costs for government workers. Mounties' salaries steadily lost ground relative to independent forces, and RCMP officers became among the cheapest in the country. In a December, 2016, survey of base salaries for constables at 80 Canadian police forces, the RCMP ranked No. 72. An April, 2017, increase has improved Mounties' salaries, but they remain low compared to what some other police forces receive. RCMP salaries for first-class constables in the Lower Mainland average $86,000, compared with $95,000 in Toronto and $100,000 in Vancouver. (Mounties get no cost of living adjustment for the Lower Mainland, and pay disparities appear to grow with rank.)

What do municipalities get in return? A force that's often stretched to meet the needs of the community. The RCMP's contract police spread their officers much more thinly, often allocating one for every 700 to 900 residents. Most municipalities with standalone forces fielded officers for every 500-600 residents, a figure that's in line with big-city norms in Canada.

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For Curt Griffiths, a criminology professor at Simon Fraser University, the difference is clear: RCMP jurisdictions in B.C. are "underpoliced" – in part because "municipalities like Surrey don't want to raise their property taxes," he said.

The RCMP, for its part, calls staffing levels a "blunt instrument" that can't properly gauge effectiveness. Representatives also point to efficiencies that stem from the RCMP's size and scale. Because it has officers stationed throughout British Columbia – indeed, across Canada – it can share resources to a greater degree than independent forces can. E-Division, as the RCMP's presence in B.C. is known, has shared units covering explosives disposal, underwater recovery and sexual predator monitoring. It can also support municipalities with centralized training and professional standards and communications, which should further reduce costs.

But internal efficiencies can only account for so much.

"The lower costs for RCMP contract policing are due in large measure to RCMP detachments being understaffed compared to their [independent] counterparts," Prof. Griffiths said.

Even the top Mountie in B.C. admits staffing levels could be improved, but says she doesn't set the levels. "I would say that globally we certainly could utilize not just more police officers but administrative support as well," said Deputy Commissioner Brenda Butterworth-Carr in an interview last year. "I wouldn't say no to increasing resources, but I also know that it's very much reliant upon the geographical area, the demographics, the concentration, the population and so forth."

The RCMP typically deploys one officer per patrol vehicle, whereas unionized police forces usually deploy two for safety reasons. Officials contend that single-member patrols can cover a larger area without affecting response times and that the practice "presents a significant increase in efficiency for patrol unit resourcing."

Critics allege that's just a way of justifying understaffing and contributes directly to poor service. "In our travels to many detachment areas, one thing to us is clear: The RCMP does not have the human resources to provide the level of service it has committed to providing municipalities," said Brian Sauvé, co-chair of the National Police Federation, in testimony to the Senate standing committee on national security and defence last February. A representative of rank-and-file RCMP members, he said understaffing forces Mounties to accept excessive overtime "and the consequent reduction in a healthy work-life balance and, ultimately, burnout."

RCMP representatives counter that thinner staffing is proof that Mounties are more productive than their counterparts at independent forces. In 2012, while seeking to convince the City of Richmond to renew its policing contract, the RCMP trumpeted a staffing level 30-per-cent lower than its independent peers. "As a measure of efficiency, Richmond Detachment currently deploys fewer officers per 100,000 citizens than independent municipal police services," it said.

Fewer officers has an obvious impact on caseload, the number of Criminal Code offences per authorized strength, which affords at least a crude approximation of relative workloads. A few years ago, a parliamentary security committee heard from police chiefs that as much as 80 per cent of calls for service don't involve Criminal Code violations. Officers increasingly find themselves responding to calls involving mental-health issues and social disorder – a person shouting in the streets, for example.

Nevertheless, caseload statistics from the Lower Mainland show that RCMP jurisdictions have significantly higher average caseloads than their independent counterparts.

While a police officer in an independent jurisdiction carries between 20 and 45 cases a year, a Mountie in a regional detachment handles 45 to 90. And this hefty urban workload is still pretty light compared to what Mounties in more remote communities carry.

Staff. Sgt Vaughan says case load statistics may be distorted because RCMP forces report these figures differently than some municipalities do. As well, cases can vary widely by police jurisdiction, ranging from high levels of "simple" crimes such as property theft to complex cases involving homicide, illegal gang activity and other intricate Criminal Code cases involving significant investigative time.

Still, the RCMP itself has used caseload statistics to compare its forces with standalone municipal services – casting their own higher numbers in a positive light. In a 2012 report called "The RCMP Advantage," written by the B.C. wing of the force for the City of Richmond, the Mounties say their officers carried an average of 70 cases a year, 27 per cent more than their peers at regional independent forces and 48 per cent more than the average at Canada's 20 largest forces. "RCMP members are more productive," they claimed.


Crime rates

Another way to gauge policing quality is to examine crime statistics. The crime rate describes the total number of Criminal Code offences – excluding drug and traffic infractions – reported for every 1,000 permanent residents. It offers a comparable, if crude, measure of crime levels in communities.

In the Lower Mainland, crime rates tend to be higher in RCMP jurisdictions than in ones policed by independent forces.

A considerable body of academic research supports the notion that investing in police departments – hiring more officers – pays dividends. The RAND Corporation surveyed that research in 2010. "Although effect estimates vary from study to study," wrote economist Paul Heaton, "the general message is that … increases in police staffing levels do generate measurable decreases in crime." The RCMP itself made the same point in 2014 when it studied the relationship between staffing levels and crime rates in 64 RCMP jurisdictions. The conclusion: "Fewer police officers = more crime."

But because police have little or no influence over key drivers of crime such as community economics or demographics – and because the crime rate simply counts offences without considering the relative seriousness of those offences – the crime rate can be a poor indicator of policing quality.

The Crime Severity Index (CSI), however, attempts to measure annual changes in the overall seriousness in crime by weighing offence types by their incarceration rates and the average length of prison sentences.

In the Lower Mainland, independent municipal jurisdictions collectively enjoyed larger CSI declines between 2007 and 2016 – 34 per cent on average, versus about 27 per cent for RCMP jurisdictions. The B.C. government uses a different methodology to calculate CSI declines, combining populations across jurisdictions. Measured this way, their results are similar to those of standalone forces, it said.


Weighted clearance rates

Yet another measure of success is what's known as the clearance rate. To "clear" a case, police must present enough evidence to support the laying of charges. A basic clearance rate is calculated by dividing the number of "solved" cases by the number of incidents reported to police and multiplying the result by 100. But, as with the crime rate, the number makes no distinction between mischief and murder.

So like the CSI, the weighted clearance rate takes into account the seriousness of offences. It's among the fairest ways to assess policing performance. The RCMP itself reports both traditional and weighted clearance rates in its annual performance reports.

Generally speaking, in the Lower Mainland, independent forces have higher weighted clearance rates than the RCMP.

Some municipalities have questioned the benefits of contract policing. In the early 2000s, the City of Surrey considered the pros and cons of establishing its own independent force. Back then, Surrey had just 400 Mounties for a population of 400,000 – about Canada's lowest urban ratio at the time.

Surrey, 2017: RCMP constables attend a call in the Whalley neighbourhood.

The city hired KPMG to conduct a high-level analysis of the two options. "Surrey RCMP officers generally have a higher case load per officer, the response time for priority one calls is greater, and the number of police personnel resources is generally lower, when compared to other municipally policed jurisdictions," noted the 2001 document.

To make matters worse, a federal funding crunch reduced the number of rookies coming out of the RCMP's central training facility in Saskatchewan, leaving few incoming officers to replace the retirees.

Local leaders were incensed. "When they shut down Depot, we said, 'Jeez, this isn't going to work, so we better get our own police force,' " recalled former mayor Doug McCallum, adding that he felt the city had outgrown the Mounties anyway. "The RCMP are trained to do mostly rural policing in Canada. They still are controlled by Ottawa."

But civil servants and expert witnesses dissuaded the city from going its own way. A 2001 report stated it clearly: It didn't make any financial sense.

"The primary disadvantages of establishing a Surrey Municipal Police Service are as follows: loss of the 10-per-cent subsidy; start-up costs of approximately $3-million and possibly more; [and] Surrey Municipal Police Service members would probably join or form a police union," the report said.

Crime got a lot worse in the years that followed. Car thieves had once been public enemy No. 1, but then feuding gangs started shooting each other in the streets. In 2007, the city lent its name to the so-called Surrey Six sextuple homicide by gangsters. Six years later, hockey mom Julie Paskall was murdered outside a rink by a drifter armed with a rock, a crime that chilled Canadians well beyond B.C.

Consultants told city council what ought to have been obvious. There were simply not enough cops to go around in Surrey, with Mounties racing from call to call, unable to carve out time for preventative policing.

"Surrey is a growing municipality with crime problems that are underscored by substance abuse, mental health issues, and gang involvement. … The current staffing levels in [general duty] are insufficient given the workload demands," read a 2014 report.

A couple of years ago, after high crime brought low police staffing to the public's attention, the newly elected mayor hired more than 100 RCMP reinforcements, including Constable Taran Sidhu, who says members of the public are thankful for the additional police presence.

"A lot of people in Surrey, they're really appreciative there are more cops on the road," the young officer said in an interview at his detachment.

The city now has more than 800 Mounties – about 4 per cent of all serving RCMP officers in Canada. Like so many Canadian municipalities and provinces, it seems Surrey is hooked on the RCMP.


THE BACKSTORY

Where did Canada's contract policing come from? A primer

by Colin Freeze


Aug. 30, 2005: Two riders walk off after a performance of the RCMP Musical Ride in Mayerthorpe, Alta. Western provinces rely on the RCMP for their policing needs, with B.C. laying claim to more than a third of all Mounties.

Contract policing is the reason Canadians see RCMP officers patrolling portions of the TransCanada highway, dealing with domestic disputes in small towns and investigating gang shootings in Metro Vancouver.

Arguably, none of these activities are part of the Mounties' core mandate – the federal force exists to target drug dealers, terrorists, mobsters and corrupt politicians. Policing in Canada is almost always a provincial or municipal responsibility, but over the course of the last century, 150 municipalities and hundreds of other smaller communities have come to rely on the RCMP for officers.

To understand why, you have to go back a century, to a time when Canada's mounted police were struggling to justify their existence. In the early 1900s, the RCMP – still known then as the North-West Mounted Police – were becoming obsolete. The Canadian frontier was being rapidly settled, and every province had matured enough to start its own independent police force.

Fort Wash, Sask., 1879: Officers of the North-West Mounted Police. The force was renamed the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 1920.

In 1928, the federal government sought to give the newly rebranded RCMP a new lease on life by brokering deals to lease out Mounties – at a loss – to lower levels of governments.

At the time, Ottawa promised to pay an even more tantalizing portion of the cost of policing – 60 per cent of the expenses of any jurisdiction that hired Mounties. All the federal government asked for in return was the ability to call back some officers, from time to time, for investigations or emergencies. The enticement bankrolled tremendous expansion. Over the decades that followed, eight out of 10 provinces signed up, killing off most of their own police forces.

In 1950, residents of Surrey, B.C., held a ballot to bring in Mounties as their police force for the first time. CITY OF SURREY FREEDOM OF INFORMATION REQUEST

The RCMP staff who work in contract policing now vastly outnumber those who focus on other facets of policing: In 2017, the force assigned 13,600 of its police-officer positions toward contract work, compared to 7,200 police-officer positions assigned to all other branches of the force.

The cost-sharing arrangement – scaled back over the years but still a significant discount – has proven especially popular in Western Canada. B.C. lays claim to well over a third of all Mounties. Only Ontario and Quebec have declined participating. The Ontario Provincial Police and Sûreté du Québec – both strong, established institutions – blocked contract Mounties from their provinces.

Government officials resist describing the arrangement as a provincial subsidy, but former RCMP Deputy Commissioner Peter German doesn't mince words. "Contracting is a thinly guised form of federal subsidy to the provinces," German wrote in his master's thesis about the subject.

In the 1970s, Ontario and Quebec threatened to seek billions in federal compensation for years of maintaining their own provincial police forces without help from Ottawa, claiming they were being punished for being the only two jurisdictions who never elected to hire any contract Mounties. But the system has remained in place. Federal transfers for local policing in fast-growing B.C. now total about $240-million a year, up from $172-million a decade ago. Many of the funds flow to areas just outside Vancouver's city limits.

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UNIONIZATION

'I want the best': How the RCMP's union-in-waiting is pushing for a better way

by Colin Freeze in North Battleford, Sask.


Pete Merrifield addresses a National Police Federation recruitment meeting.

Police boots clacked on the hardwood floor of a legion hall basement in North Battleford, Sask., as a dozen Mounties came in from the cold to hear a speech from visiting colleagues.

What they heard was the narrative of a work force – their work force – laid low, but poised to rise again if they band together.

"We've surrendered every lead we've ever had," Pete Merrifield, an RCMP sergeant from Ontario, told the room.

The bald, burly Mountie dressed in fleece and jeans recalled a time when every police force in Canada looked up to the RCMP, who were well compensated, well resourced, and had an impressive record of results. Today, he said, RCMP officers are underpaid, understaffed, outgunned and struggling to do their jobs.

It's time for a new deal, Sgt. Merrifield said.

"I'll go work in a hole, in a two-person post – but I want the best radios, I want a carbine [rifle] in every car, I want the best body armour, I want good training," he told the room. "And I want to know that I'm covered and protected – that's the contract I want with my employer."

Sgt. Merrifield's barnstorming was part of a 2017 tour by the National Police Federation, a group formed by rank and file Mounties that is essentially an RCMP union-in-waiting. Though not yet formally recognized as a union, the NPF claims that more than half of all serving Mounties now support its cause. It filed papers last year seeking recognition as the force's bargaining agent with the federal Public Service Labour Relations and Employment Board.

A 2015 Supreme Court decision paved the way for the budding union by overturning long-standing laws. Prior to that, politicians and police chiefs had so dreaded the prospect of an RCMP union that they issued orders against it. "History evidences a long-standing hostility on the part of RCMP management and successive Canadian governments to unionization in the Force," the top court's ruling said.

Spurred by the new ruling, Parliament last year finally passed a labour-relations law that establishes a framework for an RCMP union. In time, such an entity may well rapidly evolve into a powerful, and controversial, lobby group. Such groups don't merely clamour for improved wages and benefits. They develop war chests to represent officers accused of corruption and cops involved in fatal shootings. Some police associations are known to call out judges or politicians they view as unfriendly to police. And because an RCMP union would be three times as large as any existing police association in Canada, its voice would be much louder.

Police unions "use their muscle to interfere with, or influence, public policy," said Alok Mukherjee, who regularly battled a powerful one as a long-serving Toronto Police Services Board chair.

"My concern is not about whether this will improve working conditions. How will it affect public policy? Will it further politicize police unions?" he said of a Mountie union.

But debates about power tactics remain far off. The NPF's game plan is to come out of the gates swinging at the federal functionaries who have kept RCMP salary growth to a minimum. Other police forces across the country have leapfrogged each other's pay packages over the past decade. Despite a modest increase in April, 2017, Mounties were largely left out. NPF respresentatives and even some RCMP senior officers say their wages now stand about $10,000 to $20,000 behind those of their peers in large urban centres.

RCMP Sergeant Brian Sauvé, a co-founder of the NPF, told the Mounties in North Battleford that the federal government will be resistant to more raises. But he promised that if certified, the NPF will push to make the RCMP one of the top paid forces in Canada.

Brian Sauvé and Pete Merrifield of the National Police Federation have warned that staff shortages in the RCMP are a recipe for burnout among officers.

At least one Mountie in the audience wondered whether the union's efforts could price the RCMP out of the contract-policing market, since Mounties' low salaries help keep costs low for provinces and municipalities that rely on them for policing. "You could effectively be putting the RCMP out of business in the contract divisions," he said. After all, the contract policing the Mounties do for most provinces and hundreds of communities comprises the bulk of the RCMP's presence across the country.

But Sgt. Sauve said that even if salaries rise, the cost-sharing arrangement and RCMP staffing levels will still keep the overall cost advantage intact. Only a politician who wasn't seeking re-election would opt out of a police contract, he said. "It's going to cost the taxpayers more to create their own [police force] than it is to deal with us when we're reasonably paid and reasonably resourced."

But the unionization push is about more than money. The RCMP has seen about 40 suicides since 2006, and at least 7 per cent of serving officers are currently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Could high workloads be playing a role in that? "There may be a correlation – we haven't looked yet – but I would suspect that higher caseloads result in higher stress, which I suspect can be reasonably expected to increase risk for a variety of mental health challenges," said University of Regina researcher Nick Carleton, whose group has received multimillion-dollar federal grants to look at mental-health issues among Mounties.

In recent months the researchers have released studies showing that compared to other cops, Mounties may be more prone to suicidal thoughts, depression, and anxiety. The reasons are not clear, but the studies posit that solo patrols may be taking a toll. "Municipal police are more likely to be deployed in pairs, whereas RCMP are more likely to be deployed alone," one of the studies says.

One way or another, the working conditions of Mounties must change, said Senator Vern White.

"The RCMP notoriously have less numbers doing the job," said Mr. White, who was a Mountie before becoming chief of the Ottawa Police Service.

Cops are fundamentally no different whether they are unionized or not, he said. But the policing models most assuredly are, he said, so municipalities and provinces policed by Mounties may have to reconsider their contracts.

"My answer is clear: It is time for the RCMP to get the resources they need to do the job. You either pay or you go your own way."

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