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KNOX – Policing’s gone high-tech, but it comes with a price

(Image: Armchair Mayor)

EARLY FRIDAY, Victoria police waded into an apartment where a drunken soap opera was in progress.

Seems one tenant didn’t like the other tenant’s girlfriend being around so often without paying rent, and things went south from there, loudly.

It took an hour, but the cops sorted it out A) without charges, B) with some contact information for the Residential Tenancy Branch, and C) with a promise by all involved not to discuss the matter until everybody was sober.

Not the most dramatic incident of the day, just one of maybe 60,000 calls for service to which VicPD will respond this year — and one of the reasons police costs keep rising in Canada.

Critics such as the Fraser Institute see crime rates that have been trending down since the 1990s and jump to the obvious, if erroneous, conclusion that police budgets should be set accordingly. The reality is more complicated, though. Other factors are pushing up costs, something with which municipalities across the country are wrestling.

Police argue that most of what they do doesn’t show up in crime stats. A better indicator is those calls for service — that is, complaints from the public on everything from public drunkenness to lost children. In Victoria, such calls have been rising 12 per cent a year since 2012.

A less obvious but significant driver of police budgets has been a dramatic rise in the cost of investigations. A series of court decisions raised the bar for the way the collection of evidence is documented — justifiable rulings, but ones that make the process time-consuming and costly.

So does the use of modern technology. There’s an analogy with health care: The good news is that advances in science have given the medical community the tools to perform life-extending miracles; the bad news is that the advances are expensive. It costs an arm and a leg to replace a hip or a heart. Today, with Canadians enjoying a life expectancy of 82, health spending eats up about 11 per cent of our gross domestic product. It was just seven per cent in 1975, when the typical Canuck checked out at age 73.

The same thing applies to policing: Lots of new tools, but it’s expensive to buy and use them. Note the Toronto police force estimated it would cost $18 million a year just to store the video images if all of its street cops were outfitted with body-worn cameras.

In the olden days, an officer interviewing witnesses would write down a few notes; now every word might be captured in an audio or video file, then painstakingly transcribed into written form. (After the 2010 murder of Fernwood’s Leslie Hankel, VicPD had to provide the defence with transcripts of the interviews of 600 to 800 neighbours.)

Everything is more complicated. A straightforward murder case starts at half a million bucks. New standards for missing-persons and domestic-violence files are labour-intensive; working through a domestic dispute can take eight hours. VicPD has four staff in its legal services section who do little but handle freedom-of-information requests.

It’s not just the big files, either. When Victoria’s acting deputy chief, Colin Watson, started out almost 20 years ago, he could write a quick report saying he had found Buddy drunk on the street at 2 a.m. so stuck him in a cell to sleep it off. Now that report must contain more details: Why was the cop in the area? What were the specific indications of impairment? What made the officer think the arrestee needed to be taken into care?

“It’s all these little things,” Watson says. Police handle telebail hearings now. Prosecutors want more evidence before approving charges. On Friday, only a quarter of the complaints handled by VicPD by mid-afternoon were of a type that might appear in crime stats. It all adds up.

It also makes politicians squirm. Policing is a big-ticket item, typically accounting for roughly a fifth of the budget in Greater Victoria municipalities.

So now, with councillors reluctant to up the budget, VicPD brass are talking about trying to do things differently. Acting Chief Del Manak spoke this week of maybe having more complaints handled by phone. Watson speaks of not bogging down fully trained officers with tasks that could be done by others. “The future of policing is having the right number of police officers, but also the right number of civilians.”

OK, but remember that policing is like the real estate market. You might be able to handle Victoria’s high house prices when mortgage rates are low, but heaven help you if they jump a point or two.

Likewise, police might be able to handle the increased cost and complexity of investigations when crime rates are low, but what happens when they jump?

© Copyright Times Colonist

Jack Knox is a born-and-raised Kamloops lad who once worked at the Kamloops Daily News. He is now a columnist with the Victoria Times Colonist. Since joining the Times Colonist in 1988, Jack has worked as a copy editor, city editor, editorial writer and editorial page editor. Prior to that he was an editor and reporter at newspapers in Campbell River, Regina and Kamloops. 
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About Mel Rothenburger (4705 Articles)
ArmchairMayor.ca is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At ArmchairMayor.ca he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

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