Police would have the option of ticketing people for a range of minor offences — instead of laying criminal charges — under a plan that could yield significant savings for the cash-strapped justice system.
The idea has emerged from discussions fostered by the federal government on curbing the rising costs of policing, said Timothy Smith, a spokesman for the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.
Under the proposal, officers would have the option of ticketing people for offences such as causing a disturbance, public nudity, falsifying an employment record, soliciting prostitution, vagrancy or trespassing.
It builds on a resolution the Chiefs of Police passed last August that would give officers the discretion to issue a ticket under the Contraventions Act for possession of a small amount of cannabis.
"This is all part of the economics of policing initiative and the discussion that's taking place to find ways in which we can more efficiently handle these types of issues," Smith said in an interview.
"In the case of some of these other offences, should they be criminally charged or would a ticket be a better enforcement option for all those involved within the judicial system and policing? That's the kind of thinking that's going on."
Last January the federal Public Safety minister, on behalf of provincial and territorial counterparts, hosted a summit on the economics of policing that included officers and chiefs from across the country, government officials and academics.
Officials say the cost of policing is steadily rising — hitting more than $12 billion in 2010 — even though the crime rate is falling. Among the reasons: increases in police officer salaries, higher costs for equipment and fuel, and new challenges such as dealing with people who have mental health issues.
Participants are looking for efficiencies within police services, new models of community safety and possible savings within the broader justice system.
Giving someone a ticket for a relatively minor offence may be "more appropriate" than sending that person to criminal court, a process that "clogs the system up," said Mark Mander, police chief in Kentville, N.S.
Two of Mander's officers recently spent a full day in court and never ended up testifying, said Mander, head of the police chiefs' drug abuse committee.
"But they had to be there, right? We see that with even minor offences, where they're there all day and not having to testify."
He sees the ticketing option as another tool for police.
"But we also want to make sure that the police officers retain the right to lay the formal charge as well — so they still need that discretionary option, depending on the circumstances."
In late August, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the government was looking very carefully at the notion of a ticketing proposal for a small amount of marijuana.
The police chiefs say they've heard nothing yet.
However, last month ministers responsible for justice and public safety from across Canada approved a common agenda to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of policing.
In addition, the Chiefs of Police plan a conference on mental health in March in Toronto to discuss the reality that police have become the social workers of the street. With supports for the mentally ill lacking, there is pressure on officers to pick up the slack — eating into scarce resources.
"That's another huge area that falls under this as well," Smith said. "So how can we improve those interactions?"