Police chiefs, academics and government officials from across the country are gathering in Ottawa this week for a landmark summit on the cost of policing, at a time when many municipalities are struggling to contain soaring public safety budgets.
The two-day event will focus on what police can do differently to deliver the kind of services the public has come to expect, but at a lower cost. It is expected to look at new community safety models as well as ideas for working more efficiently within police services and in the broader justice system.
"It's a major, watershed event," said Paul McKenna, who teaches public administration at Dalhousie University and is in Ottawa to attend the summit. He said the meeting is evidence of a growing recognition that Canadian policing is due for some fundamental change. "A lot of police services are looking to retool themselves in fairly substantial ways."
The number of crimes reported to police is declining while the cost of policing and the number of officers continues to increase, Dr. McKenna said.
Adding to the pressure on municipalities, many cities and towns are paying more for policing as local forces begin to tackle issues such as border security and cybercrime.
Matt Torigian, chief of the Waterloo Regional Police Service, says policing challenges are part of a "perfect storm" faced by municipalities across the country.
"What we're all hearing – and what we probably are all in agreement to – is that the cost for policing in communities and municipalities right across Canada cannot be sustained given some of the economic pressures that we're seeing in so many other areas," he said.
Mr. Torigian said he was among a group of police chiefs who travelled to the Britain in November to look at cost-cutting reforms in that country, including public-private partnerships – a move he believes police chiefs in Canada should keep a close eye on. "This [summit] is really about opening our minds to new approaches in service delivery," he said.
About 80 per cent of police spending is on salaries and benefits, according to Statistics Canada figures from 2010, which means compensation for police officers is likely to be a part of the discussions at the summit.
Canadian Police Association president Tom Stamatakis said he is worried there could be too much focus on cutting pay to police without acknowledging that officers are being asked to respond to a growing range of complex social challenges. Those include approaching people with mental illness, and dealing with drug abuse and domestic violence.
"There are much higher standards in policing today than there were even 10 or 20 years ago," he said, adding that police are expected to complete more training and are subject to a greater degree of oversight than they were in the past. "As you professionalize policing and create these higher expectations, then I think the people that come into policing have higher expectations as well in terms of how they're going to be compensated."
Mr. Stamatakis said he would like to see more partnerships between police, government and social agencies to make sure people get the help they need after a police encounter. He said that could help police use existing systems "to better manage that person with a mental-health issue, so that police aren't responding, you know, multiple times in one night or multiple times in one week to the same person who's struggling with the same issues."