Catherine Holt: Combined police forces the safest solution

There’s nothing like a summer night by the Inner Harbour to remind you our region’s focal point is downtown Victoria. On any weekend there are a remarkable number of locals and visitors taking in festivals, enjoying restaurants or having a stroll. All because it’s a beautiful and safe place to be.

We value a peaceful, functional community and we need good policing to manage the things that can disrupt or threaten our community standard.

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As the region’s population grows — we had 386,000 citizens in 2016 and forecasts by the Capital Regional District call for about 450,000 by 2030 — the challenge to maintain a great little city will intensify.

As CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce, I’m all for efficiency and budgeting oversight. Policing costs must be controlled, especially as population grows. But does it make sense for the Victoria police chief to have the never-ending job of trying to wring enough money out of Victoria and Esquimalt councils to keep the department from imploding?

We have four municipal police services in the region: Oak Bay, Central Saanich, Saanich and Victoria. And RCMP detachments in Sooke, North Saanich/Sidney and the West Shore.

Victoria and Saanich are committed to a Citizens’ Assembly exploring the benefits and costs of amalgamation (and where are they with that, anyway?). An obvious top-of-the-list topic for the assembly is a combined police force.

I am going to boldly assert that Victoria and Saanich are the urban and suburban parts of a single community with an indistinguishable and inexplicable border dividing them. With this in mind, let’s look at a few facts.

The Police Services Division in the B.C. Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General publishes statistics on every police department in the province. Their latest numbers are from 2017-18. Plus every municipality publishes budget numbers.

I’m using the ones from 2018. This is not a perfect alignment but close enough to make informed comparisons. I’ve also included Esquimalt as it is served by, and pays for, the Victoria Police Department.

Saanich has about 116,000 people, compared with 86,000 in Victoria and 17,000 in Esquimalt.

Saanich has a larger municipal budget — $291.3 million compared with $241 million for Victoria and $42.4 million for Esquimalt.

But Saanich’s police budget is $42 million and accounts for 14.4 per cent of its total municipal budget. Victoria’s police budget is $53.9 million, which is 23.3 per cent of the city budget. Esquimalt contributes $7.9 million for policing, or about 18.6 per cent of its total budget.

And Saanich has fewer police officers with 161, compared with 245 serving Victoria and Esquimalt.

Saanich’s crime rate is about one-third of Victoria/Esquimalt (35 vs. 104 incidents per 1,000 residents), and it has a lower caseload per police officer (25 vs. 44).

Saanich also has a much lower cost per capita. Saanich citizens each pay about $362 for policing, compared with $626 per Victorian and $464 for each Esquimalt resident.

So Saanich has more people, more money and a bigger budget but lower policing costs, fewer officers and fewer cases per officer. To be clear, there is much more to the daily toil of police officers than working on “cases,” but it is one way to measure relative workload.

If Saanich’s police officers are fully employed with 25 cases each, what does it suggest when an average Victoria police officer has 44 cases?

The per capita cost is also a disturbing stat. As the regional hub, Victoria’s police officers are responsible for the safety of the many Saanich residents who commute downtown or spend their evenings in the city. Eighty per cent of the daily traffic arriving in Victoria is from Saanich.

So why do the citizens of Victoria pay almost twice as much for policing as the citizens of Saanich?

What happens when we combine forces and treat Victoria and Saanich as one municipality? The numbers suggest a more balanced distribution of police costs and responsibilities:

Population: 219,000

Police budget: $103.8 million

Cost per capita: $473

Caseload per officer: 36.

There would be other advantages of combined resources, such as the ability to provide more sophisticated expertise in specialized units to keep up with the changing demands of policing — money laundering, illicit fentanyl, child pornography, cybercrime and human trafficking, for example.

Or just a unit to reduce crime by tracking prolific repeat offenders, like the one the Victoria chief just disbanded to use those resources to try and keep up with an overwhelming number of 911 calls.

Greater Victoria’s numerous police departments have tried to achieve a more specialized level of policing by creating 40 joint committees to share information and resources on matters such as forensics, road safety, sexual predators and serious crime. But it’s voluntary and the sharing stops and starts as priorities change.

So, we continue to have four municipal police forces and three RCMP detachments with 40 committees, as well as plans for a new $24-million shared radio system so they can talk to each other. And, this year, a new $13-million South Island 911/Police Dispatch Centre in Saanich housing 70 staff transferred from three existing police dispatch services. It receives every 911 call in the region and dispatches the appropriate police service.

Wouldn’t one police service be easier than all this?

Let me put it another way:

According to Chief Del Manak, on Tuesday, June 25, at 7 p.m., dispatchers at the new 911 centre had 46 calls on hold waiting for VicPD officers, who could not keep up with demand.

At that time, how many calls were on hold for Saanich police? Were there police officers in the suburbs with time on their hands?

For the sake of safety in our region, shouldn’t they be responding to those calls?

Catherine Holt is CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce.

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