A new federal study will take a close look at the trend toward "civilianization" of police services, asking whether tax dollars can be saved by moving uniformed officers away from jobs like directing traffic, doing paperwork and even investigating a crime scene.
Public Safety Canada is looking to have research completed by July that would study police forces across the country and around the world to determine if the move to civilianization does in fact save money.
The review comes as the RCMP acknowledges it has been scaling back its activities in such traditional areas as organized crime, drugs and corruption to increase its focus on anti-terrorism work while remaining within its approved budget.
The cost of policing in Canada has risen from $7.8-billion to $11.1-billion between 2002 to 2012 – a 42-per-cent increase – according to Statistics Canada figures that account for inflation.
The spike in costs was steepest in Alberta, where spending on police rose 73 per cent during that 10-year period. Prince Edward Island had the lowest increase at 21 per cent.
The Federation of Canadian Municipalities describes Canada's policing system as badly in need of repair and has warned that the cost of policing and public safety is the fastest-growing for municipalities.
According to a request for proposals from Public Safety, there is currently "little to no public empirical evidence" to support the general consensus among academics that the benefits of civilianization outweigh the challenges, "especially with regard to how much savings is actually achieved as a result of civilianization."
Professor Curt Taylor Griffiths, co-ordinator of the police studies program in the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University, has studied the moves in this direction by forces in Vancouver and Winnipeg and said a broader review by Ottawa would be welcomed by forces at all levels in Canada.
"Whether civilianization actually saves money or not is certainly open to question, particularly in the more specialized areas," he said, though his work did find the move saved money in Winnipeg and Vancouver.
Any study of the growth in policing costs should also look at their growing workload, he said. "Police have become de facto mental-health workers and social workers and they're being downloaded on massively, primarily by the provinces," he said.
The federal government is responsible for Canada's national police force, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, but the RCMP also provides provincial policing services on contract to all provinces and territories except Ontario and Quebec.
It has direct policing contracts with about 150 Canadian municipalities.
Provincial and territorial spending on police rose 42 per cent from 2002 to 2012, while spending by the RCMP on national and international policing rose by 40 per cent.
A spokesperson for Public Safety Canada said the research is meant to help the department develop public policy. "Public Safety Canada commissioned the report to help keep the department informed of current trends and issues relevant to the benefits and challenges of the civilianization of police in Canada," said spokesperson Jean Paul Duval.
According to the request for proposal, the federal study will look at civilianization in four areas of policing: administrative, services such as traffic control and community patrol, investigative assistance such as responding to non-threatening calls, and specialized support such as forensic scientists and accountants.
The most recent Statistics Canada survey of policing shows the ratio of fully sworn police officers to civilians working on police-department payrolls moved from 4.6 to one in 1962 to 2.5 to one in 2007.
It stayed at that ratio from 2007 to 2013.
The number of police officers in Canada rose from 62,461 in 2006 to a peak of 69,505 in 2012 before declining slightly to 69,272 in 2013. The number of civilians working for police departments grew from 23,911 to a high of 28,202 in 2012, and then 27,872 in 2013.
Public Safety held a summit on the economics of policing in 2013 that was billed as a venue for governments and police forces to share ideas on how to reduce costs.
The department declined to say how much the study will cost until it has awarded the contract to a bidder.