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Whistler, Victoria top provincial policing costs despite fewer officers, lower caseloads

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Whistler and Victoria taxpayers pay the highest prices per police officer in B.C. at $491 and $493 per capita respectively, 56 per cent more than the national average of $315 per capita, according to RCMP and federal policing statistics for 2016 and 2017.

Those cities, however, run in the middle of the pack of police departments when it comes to the caseload per officer.

Of 19 RCMP and municipal departments examined, an officer carried an average of 55.7 cases.

Municipally policed Victoria and RCMP-covered Whistler were below average at 44 and 50 cases per officer respectively.

Municipal officials, however, said it’s critical take to into account how policing is tailored to communities to understand the figures.

Former police officers, though, said differing statistical-gathering methods make policing choices difficult.

Victoria Police Department deputy chief constable Colin Watson said the city presents some unique policing challenges.

With a downtown core, entertainment district and tourism factors that can increase crime rates, municipal police has to deal with calls in an area without a large resident population, he said.

The region’s residents generally live in bedroom communities outside the municipal force’s area in regions policed by the RCMP, Watson said.

He said communities such as Saanich or Oak Bay have lower crime rates, leading to differing statistics.

Watson said with RCMP-covered areas being able to draw on combined local and federal resources, it’s best to compare municipal forces to other municipal forces.

“The accounting is all done differently,” he said.

Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden agreed it’s hard to compare communities.

Being a resort community, Whistler sees huge swings in population served by police, she said.

“We see extraordinary ebbing and flowing,” she said.

Wilhelm-Morden noted 81 per cent of residents and 91 per cent of people who own second homes in Whistler surveyed said they were satisfied with the policing.

Surrey RCMP carried the highest caseload at 85 per officer at a cost of $272, a price tag below the national cost.

The District of North Vancouver’s RCMP force was most cost-effective, with officers carrying 44 cases and a policing cost of $185 per capita.

RCMP officers generally come at a lower cost than their municipal counterparts.

The average cost per capita for RCMP policing in the cases examined is $256 per capita, while the average municipal force cost is $366 per capita.

Following Victoria at the highest municipal policing price tag is Vancouver at $422 followed by New Westminster at $344.

The cost of RCMP policing drops drastically outside Whistler, which had a per-capita policing cost of $256.

Dawson Creek trails behind the ski resort at a cost of $333, followed closely by Prince George and Fort St. John at $330 and $307 respectively.

RCMP officers in northern communities generally cost more than their southern counterparts.

According to Statistics Canada, there were 69,027 police officers in Canada on May 15, 2017, 168 more than in 2016.

That’s 530 people per officer, one per cent over 2016.

And, British Columbians have fewer police watching over them than does the average Canadian, with a ratio of 662 people per officer.

That ratio is highest in the District of North Vancouver, 952 people per officer, followed by Richmond with 920.

Both Victoria and Whistler fall well below average at 416 and 443 people per officer respectively.

However, said Wilhelm-Morden, when the number of non-permanent residents and visitors is taken into account, the ratio of people to officers rises dramatically and results in a significant drop in officer per capita costs.

Northern cities such as Prince George, Dawson Creek and Fort St. John have ratios of 514:1, 485:1 and 628:1 respectively.

However, numbers of police officers don’t necessarily compare to crime statistics.

The number of violent crimes in B.C. has declined in three out of five years between 2013 and 2017.

There were 391,767 incidents in 2013, or 8,535 per hundred thousand in 2013.

That spiked to 412,478 in 2016 or 8,669 per hundred thousand but declined to 398,032 in 2017, a drop of 4.69 per cent to 398,032 or 8,262 per hundred thousand.

Police forces in Canada in 2016-2017 cost $14.7 billion in current dollars, StatsCan said.

That spending has increased annually from 1987-1988 for every year except in 1994-1995 and 1995-1996, with very small decreases of less than one per cent.

With population and inflation factored in, policing costs in 2016/2017 amounted to $315 per capita, almost unchanged from $313 per capita in 2015/2016, StatsCan said.

However, figuring out value for money when it comes to police departments is confounded with multiple methods of gathering data across Canada, two former police officers said.

And that makes it difficult for taxpayers and their elected representatives to make decisions, the officers said.

Veteran Mountie-turned-investigative consultant Bruce Pitt-Payne and former Vancouver Police Department and RCMP officer Leo Knight said comparing caseloads per officer is almost impossible.

 They say smaller police departments open a file for each reported crime while big-city departments open batch files on certain types of crime.

That skews data, they said.

“The statistics are meaningless unless they are taken in the same way,” Pitt-Payne said.

And that makes it hard to compare one force to another, Knight and Pitt-Payne said.

Pitt-Payne explained provincial and federal statistical gathering doesn’t take into account the differing needs of communities.

He said how poverty and street level crime are handled in a higher density area like Surrey would be vastly different than in Port Moody.

Pitt-Payne said the issue is taxpayer expectations.

“Statistics should never be the answer,” he said. “You never realize that until you become a victim and you need them [police].”

RCMP members generally carry heavier caseloads than their municipal counterparts and do so at a generally lower cost per-officer cost to taxpayers, federal and provincial statistics show.

And, Pitt-Payne warned, what constitutes a caseload for the RCMP very frequently differs from the definition used by municipal police forces.

That makes figuring out cost-effectiveness almost impossible – and the lack of standardization makes choosing between having RCMP or a municipal force difficult.

Politics may have a lot to do with it, former Vancouver Police Department chief constable Bob Stewart said in his 2007 report, The Buck Stops Nowhere.

Stewart said each police jurisdiction has its own executive hierarchy and management systems.

“If the Harvard Business School were asked to assess the management model for Greater Vancouver police work, I suspect the outcome would be to recommend psychiatric care for whomever designed the system,” he said.

However, other factors arrive to counter local governments’ desires.

Stewart said about 25 per cent of the RCMP force works in B.C. with big urban contracts in places such as Surrey, Langley, Burnaby, Coquitlam, Richmond and North Vancouver.

“Size means power in the federal system. More thousands of troops means more captains, colonels and generals,” Stewart said. “I can think of no other reason for the RCMP's passion to compete for business with municipal police.”

Pitt-Payne cautioned against using dollar value as a sole determinant for policing choices based on statistics.

“Real value for money may be found in the opinion of the clients for whom the police work,” he said. “These stats rarely illustrate the value based on a comparison of expectations of the client before and after the police involvement.”

Those expectations may shift in how a person is dealt with.

A big-city officer may take a statement from a person robbed and tell the victim to call their insurance company, Pitt-Payne and Knight said.

“We call them firemen – the bigger the force, the busier they are,” Pitt-Payne said.

The file might then be passed to an investigator.

In a small force, officer might respond to everything and carry the file to a conclusion.

The former might happen in Vancouver while in Port Moody illustrates the latter.

“Port Moody is known as the no-call-too-small police force, “ Pitt-Payne said.

Such varying responses to calls makes statistics about those calls misleading, Pitt-Payne said.

– Jeremy Hainsworth, Glacier Media