More Police Recruits Hoped to Lower Crime Rates

Two conflicting images of POLICE work dominate the public imagination just now. One is of Const. Doug Scott, 20, by all accounts an uncommonly likeable rookie Mountie, shot and killed in the Baffin Island village of Kimmirut after responding alone to an impaired driving complaint. Questions about why he didn't have a partner with him continue to swirl. The other image, of course, is the fatal scene, captured on video, of four RCMP officers using tasers to take down a single distressed Polish immigrant at Vancouver International Airport. In that notorious incident, there didn't appear to be any shortage of police manpower.

So which impression is more accurate? Are police in Canada dangerously short-handed, or roaming in packs? The federal government stands squarely in the camp of those who think a lot more officers should be on the job. In this fall's Throne Speech, the Conservatives repeated their 2006 campaign pledge to pay for "2,500 more officers to police our streets." Some experts, though, question the wisdom, or even the feasibility, of that plan. They say it's far from certain adding more cops would cut CRIME, and it's not clear forces could recruit so many new officers even if new federal funding eventually flows their way.

Most police forces are struggling to cope with the twin challenges of the looming retirement of many baby-boom generation officers, and the dwindling interest among young Canadians in law-enforcement careers. Maclean's was given a consultant's report on the issue, completed in October for the Police Sector Council, a national group that provides human resources advice to police forces. The 250-page study urges them to consider dramatic steps, like creating a centralized agency to recruit and train for all police services. The report, now in front of police chiefs across the country, makes the Tory pledge look simplistic. Geoff Gruson, the council's executive director, says the government seems to mean well, but its "back-of-the-envelope" promise fails to grasp the extent of the problem. "Their hearts might be in the right place," Gruson says. "But how do we allocate those cops? How do we train them? How do we recruit them in the first place?"

It's not as if police forces aren't already scrambling to bolster their ranks. Statistics Canada recently reported a 2.7 per cent increase in the number of Canadian cops in 2007, the second largest increase in 30 years. About two-thirds of the 1,700 new officers were added in B.C. and Ontario. Competition among forces for recruits is sometimes fierce. Still, Canada's total number of police officers, 64,134, adds up to 195 for every 100,000 people, well below the 222 to 270 officers per 100,000 in the U.S., Australia and Britain. The RCMP's short-staffing woes have been a matter of public record since federal auditor general Sheila Fraser raised the alarm two years ago. But the Mounties aren't alone. "My sense," says Gruson, "is that very few forces are making their recruitment targets."

Attracting new recruits is harder than ever. Sgt. Carol Tanowsky, who heads the Vancouver Police Department's recruitment unit, says a decade ago the force could pick the best from a reliable 1,000 applicants a year. Now, the pool of applications has dwindled to 300 or 400 annually, at a time when the force is trying to find more suitable new cops. In part to prepare for the 2010 Winter Olympics, Vancouver hopes to recruit 100 a year for the next two years, up from 50 to 75. The traditional pitch to potential cops emphasized job security and great pensions. That isn't enough anymore, especially in the booming West, where well-paying jobs are plentiful. "Young people are thinking about their immediate needs," Tanowsky says. "They don't look at a long-term career of 30 years." So the themes recruiters rely on must shift, she says, from paycheques and pensions to excitement and community service.

Despite Ottawa's emphasis on hiring more cops, criminologists tend to be skeptical that boosting the numbers will alone cut crime. "North American police forces are on the whole overstaffed," says professor Mariana Valverde, acting director of the University of Toronto's criminology centre, "particularly in regard to patrol officers who basically waste gas driving around." Professor Rob Gordon, director of Simon Fraser University's criminology school, says more officers are often needed, although not mainly to reduce crime. More police, he says, would improve both the safety of officers, by making sure they don't have to work alone, and the security of those apprehended, by avoiding stressful situations in which a lone cop ends up coping with an unruly individual under arrest.

But Gordon, himself a former British police officer, predicts adding cops wouldn't make crime appear to decline, since more police generally means more arrests for offences like possession of drugs and stolen property. "What happens when you increase the number of police officers in an area," he says, " is that the reported crime rate goes up."

Figuring out where to add more police is proving to be a point of contention. At a recent meeting, provincial justice ministers clashed over the right formula. Ontario's Liberal government argues any new federal funding should be divided up based strictly on population. That would give Ontario about 1,000 of the promised 2,500 new officers. But some other provinces say the needs of rural and northern policing should get special attention.

Determining where police are really thin on the ground - based on factors like crime rates and population growth - might help Ottawa decide its next steps. "What we should be doing," Gordon says, "is developing indicators of need." Police already tend to be concentrated where crime is more prevalent. Regina, for instance, has a high crime rate, and employs one police officer for every 555 people; Kingston, Ont., a similar-sized city with about half the crime rate, has one cop for every 701 residents.

Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day hasn't said how Ottawa will distribute the promised new police funding, or when, or how much. Gruson estimates at least $250 million a year would be needed on an ongoing basis to keep 2,500 more officers on the job. But he urges the political decision-makers to take a step back before throwing money at a complex problem. "There's no formula, just a huge amount of spinning," Gruson says. "It needs to be way better thought out. We need to stop talking about numbers and start talking about the issue." His council's report says police forces have "not responded" to looming recruiting and retention challenges identified back in 2001. It recommends reforms like centralized candidate screening, a push to get retiring officers to sign up for annual, renewable contracts, and building new ties with colleges and universities to target high-quality potential recruits. "Each police organization appears to operate in isolation," the reports says, "with little evidence of talent being managed across police organizations."

More police on the street made a good campaign promise, and might even make sense. But making good on that commitment will require more than just doling out money to the provinces. With the recent tragedies in the Far North and the Vancouver airport putting police work under closer scrutiny than any time in recent memory, the moment might be right for a more sophisticated look at where Canada is going to find its next generation of cops.

Maclean's December 10, 2007