Members of city council voiced serious concerns about the rising cost of policing in Prince George during budget deliberations on Monday night.
The city is looking at an estimated 6.55 per cent tax increase for 2022. One of the biggest cost increases facing the city is a $2.4 million increase to the RCMP budget, resulting from contracted wage increases negotiated between the federal government and the RCMP’s union.
A report requested by city council estimated that cutting $1 million from the RCMP budget would require the reduction of five officers from the city’s 142-officer detachment.
Those officers would have to come from complimentary policing initiatives like Downtown Safety Unit and Car 60, Prince George RCMP Supt. Shaun Wright said, because eliminating frontline officers could result in the detachment not being able to meet the minimum standards of policing set out in the Police Act.
“Those are nice to haves, really nice to have, services, but not essential. We have seen a significant spike in calls for service. We have to maintain our core function,” Wright said. “The obvious cost driver is the collective bargaining agreement. I realize it is a significant cost jump in a single year.”
Despite the increase, the RCMP are still a good value compared to municipal police forces. Because the federal government pays 10 per cent of the wages of the RCMP, the salary cost to the City of Prince George for a regular constable is $92,176 per year, Wright said. A comparable Delta Police Department, which represents the average wage for municipal police forces in B.C., earns $107,928 per year, he said.
The total per-member cost for the City of Prince George, including equipment, support services and other costs, increased from roughly $180,000 per year to $200,000 per year.
In a report to city council, city director of public safety Adam Davey said the Prince George RCMP has seen a 22 per cent increase in calls for service over the past five years. The report calls for the addition of two training officers and two investigative support team officers to the detachment by the last quarter of the year. The enhancement was expected to add $201,365 to the RCMP budget this year, and $805,460 in 2023.
The investigative support team would provide mid-level investigators to assist frontline officers in managing investigations, Wright said. By having two dedicated investigators it will improve workflow efficiency.
“Rather than asking for four members, which would equate to one per shift, I think this is more efficient,” Wright said.
The training officers would allow additional training, focused on local needs, to be done in-house in the detachment, he added.
“I think we could do better for the citizens (of Prince George) with a higher level of training, but council has to decide where those resources go,” he said.
‘I JUST EXPECTED MORE’
Coun. Terri McConnachie said she and her council colleagues wanted serious options on how to reduce police costs by $1 million. Given the issues facing the city’s downtown, cutting the Downtown Safety Unit and Car 60 mental health program were political non-starters, she said.
“How can you help us save the community a million dollars?” McConnachie asked. “I am looking for meaningful dialogue. I want(ed) serious considerations. I just expected more.”
Instead of serious options to consider, the report suggesting the downtown-focused services be cut has caused “fear and uncertainty” in the community, she said.
“We need police. We need well-equipped, well-trained officers,” McConnachie said. “(But) it seems like the only thing rising faster than crime is the cost of policing.”
Coun. Cori Ramsay said she compared the city’s RCMP detachment to police services in other B.C. municipalities, and it appears Prince George is paying more per officer.
The City of Nanaimo has 20,000 more people than Prince George, but only 12 more RCMP members and is paying less per officer than Prince George does, Ramsay said.
“I spent hours going through this… and it is not lining up,” she said.
Ramsay said she would like city staff to prepare a report comparing the city’s per-officer policing costs to other similar municipalities. During Monday night’s budget deliberations, city council was not putting any motions on the floor for debate, but Ramsay said she intends to bring the issue back for discussion later.
Coun. Brian Skakun said city council members are getting an earful from concerned downtown business owners.
“The RCMP are getting political on this,” he said. “There is open drug use downtown. They sell the stuff and smoke the stuff right on a busy street corner. Nobody seems to get caught. The businesses downtown are just at their wit’s end.”
Coun. Garth Frizzell said municipalities across Canada have raised concerns about the rising cost of policing. However, he said, under the Police Act if the province finds that the city isn’t meeting the policing benchmarks set out in the act, the provincial government can force the city to increase policing to meet the required level and force the city to pay.
“We took a lot of flak this week from people saying, ‘You can’t cancel Car 60,’” Coun. Kyle Sampson said. “(But) if Nanaimo is paying less, then why?”
‘A FAIRLY HIGH-CRIME COMMUNITY'
In addressing the differences between communities, Supt. Wright said different communities have different situations, and population alone isn’t the best indicator of how much policing is needed.
“I won’t beat around in the bush… we are a fairly high-crime community,” Wright said. “We do have a high volume of calls. (And) we are fairly high on the severity index of those calls.”
When there is extra demands for policing, the detachment tries to meet those demands with overtime, rather than pulling officers from the Downtown Safety Unit and Car 60 program. However, those community initiatives end up running short-staffed five to 10 per cent of the time, when resources are needed elsewhere.
A report published by the B.C. Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General in September 2021 showed that in 2019 and 2020, Prince George had the third-highest number of Criminal Code of Canada offences reported among B.C. police jurisdictions.
In 2020, 17,204 Criminal Code offences were reported in the Prince George municipal policing jurisdiction, only behind Vancouver (49,226 offences) and Surrey (39,890 offences). The Vancouver Police Department responded to and investigated 2.8 times as many crimes as the Prince George RCMP did in 2020, but has a total of 1,348 police officers and more than 400 civilian staff as of 2021.
The Surrey RCMP detachment is the largest RCMP detachment in Canada, with more than 1,000 police officers.
A total of 11,281 Criminal Code offences were reported in Nanaimo in 2020 – meaning the Vancouver Island community’s police force (with 12 more officers than Prince George) responded to 34 per cent less crimes in 2020.
The City of Kelowna, with a population nearly double that of Prince George, saw 16,880 Criminal Code offences reported. As of 2021, Kelowna had 202 RCMP officers working out of its municipal detachment – 19 of which had been added between 2020 and 2021.
In 2019, the City of Kelowna received a consultant’s report suggesting the city’s RCMP detachment was badly understaffed. The Griffiths Report suggested that the City of Kelowna needed to hire an additional 37 RCMP officers by 2025.
The report suggested Kelowna’s RCMP officers were carrying too many case files – 75 at any one time, based on 2018 numbers. The average case load per officer for cities large than 100,000 people was 40 per officer.
In an interview with Castanet Kelowna in December 2020, Kelowna RCMP Supt. Kara Triance said Kelowna RCMP needed more officers to catch up.
"In my opinion, we need to critically address our need to be responsive on the front line,” Triance told Castanet. "It will be my job to be projecting what resources we need as we begin to grow in population, as we anticipate crime trends, and as we look at what we can do internally."
‘WE’VE LOST A COUPLE BUSINESSES IN THE DOWNTOWN’
During a public input session at the beginning of city council’s budget meeting on Monday, John Zukowski of the Prince George Business Advocacy Group and Todd Corrigall of the Prince George Chamber of Commerce called on the city to address the crime and social issues in the downtown – along with a pitch to keep taxes low.
“We’ve lost a couple businesses in the downtown because of the crime issues,” Zukowski said. “It’s been very tough.”
Downtown business owners and staff are being forced to tackle issues on their doorstep that they aren’t prepared for and shouldn’t be handling, Corrigall said.
“There are businesses that can’t get insurance anymore,” because they’ve been vandalized so many times, he added.
Natasha Allen, a security guard who has spent 10 years working for businesses in the downtown, said the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the issues downtown.
“It was already bad, but it has gotten significantly worse,” Allen told city council on Monday. “Lines are already taken up frequently when I call for help. (Police) resources are not always available right away.”
The Downtown Safety Unit has been a big help, she added, as she urged city council not to cut funding to the RCMP.
City council will debate the RCMP’s 2022 budget on Wednesday, when budget deliberations continue.
- With files from Castanet Kelowna