Editorial: Police do more than nab crooks

Numbers don’t lie, goes the saying. Perhaps, but neither do they tell the whole truth. Greater Victoria police forces are overstaffed, says the Fraser Institute, drawing that conclusion from its study called Police and Crime Rates in Canada.

The study of metropolitan regions across the country analyzed policing levels, local crime rates and factors such as median family income, unemployment and youth populations. It used Statistics Canada data over a 10-year period to calculate the optimal number of police officers.

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The study found that spending on policing has grown over the past decade even as crime rates have fallen. Between 1986 and 2012, policing costs per person in Canada rose by 45.5 per cent while Criminal Code incidents per officer dropped by 36.8 per cent.

The Fraser Institute listed areas deemed to have overstaffed police forces — Saint John, N.B., Winnipeg and Windsor, Ont., were the top three; Greater Victoria ranked 10th. The study’s authors say more police can lead to lower crime rates, but at some point, hiring more police officers has little effect in reducing the crime rate.

The reason for the study is to examine municipal finances.

“Is Victoria making efficient use of its dollars?” asks Niels Veldhuis, Fraser Institute president. “One way to evaluate that is whether it has the appropriate number of officers.”

And the way to measure that, Veldhuis says, is through crime rates. “For most people, the most important aspect is to keep our cities safe,” he says. “So I believe the crime rate is one of the most important metrics.”

But does a lower crime rate mean fewer police officers are needed? Or could it mean the police officers are doing their job? One way to find out would be to cut the number of police officers by half and see what happens to the crime rate, although no one is likely to have an appetite for that sort of experiment.

It’s useful to collect data on numbers of police officers compared to population and the crime rate, if the information collected is part of a larger picture. There’s more to the picture than statistics, though.

The study points out that the number of Criminal Code incidents per officer has dropped while policing costs have risen, but that’s a one-dimensional view.

As much as 70 to 80 per cent of police time is spent dealing with issues of homelessness, mental health and addictions, which don’t show up in crime statistics. And actual crimes require far more investigative time and laborious paperwork than in the past.

Yes, the crime rate is down. In 2008, B.C. had 117 homicides; in 2013, it had 71 homicides. So we need fewer police officers, right?

But catching crooks isn’t the only thing police officers do. They also enforce traffic regulations and protect the safety of our streets and highways. While traffic fatalities in B.C. appear to be declining, they have averaged more than 300 a year over the past five years. Add to that the number of people who are seriously injured in traffic accidents, and it’s plain to see there’s still plenty of work for police.

Traffic cops are too often regarded as lesser beings in law enforcement, but that’s a misperception fed by TV shows and movies. Traffic enforcement, while it isn’t as sexy as crime-fighting, is vital in saving lives and preventing injury and property damage.

The declining crime rate indicates prevention measures are working. Who leads crime prevention?

Police-department budgets should not be immune from scrutiny and restraint, and the Fraser Institute numbers can be a useful starting point, but it takes more than statistics to determine the value of police work.

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