Police budgets soar while social spending stagnates. It’s not working but there’s a better way to make society safer

Feature by Gregory Beatty

Canada, as a country, spends over $15 billion annually on municipal, provincial and federal police services.

For Canadians who live in cities, the cost is especially high. Just consider Saskatoon and Regina. In 2020, out of a total city budget of $524 million, Saskatoon is spending $110 million on police services. Regina, with a $472 million city budget, is spending $96 million.

The first point that needs to be made about the “Defund Police” movement is that — contrary to dishonest right-wing fear-mongering — it isn’t about getting rid of police and letting criminals run amok.

It’s about recognizing that the current system of punitive law enforcement — which also includes another $5 billion annually for provincial jails and federal prisons — is incredibly expensive.

What defunders propose is to reallocate some police funds to frontline social services to help people struggling with issues such as poverty, homelessness, mental health and addictions that often bring them into conflict with the law.

Instead of “tough on crime”, it’s tough on the causes of crime.

“Ultimately, it’s about having the right tool for the job,” says Shawn Fraser, Saskatchewan director of the John Howard Society. “When something truly criminal has happened, then absolutely the police are the right people to call. But the reality is that the number of calls police answer that aren’t criminal is astounding. Then the question is, do we have other resources beyond the police that can respond when someone’s maybe having a personal or family crisis?”

The Thick Blue Budget Line

While austerity has been a constant theme in government budgeting for decades, police budgets have resisted that trend. In 2000, for instance, Saskatoon’s police budget was $31 million.  So the current budget of $110 million translates into a 354 per cent increase over 20 years.

Regina’s budget has risen sharply too, says city councilor Andrew Stevens. “Since 2012, the Regina Police Service budget has gone up by 40 per cent while the city budget, overall, has gone up by less than the rate of inflation.”

Police in both cities operate as quasi-independent agencies under provincial legislation. That gives them a certain amount of autonomy compared to other city departments.

But the police budget is still subjected to scrutiny, says Stevens.

“It’s not fair to say the budget is rubber-stamped,” says Stevens. “We have private sessions that go on for hours. Then at council there’s further discussion. Last year, we had an entire evening dealing with delegates and the RPS budget. That said, RPS is consistently approved and rarely is there any dissent. There’s a lot of messaging around safety, and the routine is you talk about gangs, drugs and traffic enforcement.

“What tends to be missed is that RPS also talks about social determinants of crime, and the need to finance and show leadership in that area,” Stevens says. “So the police, in some respects, are ahead of elected politicians in drilling home the point that they deal mostly with non-criminal matters.”

So why aren’t politicians listening? Stevens says it’s a question worth asking.

“It’s important to remember it’s not police who caused this,” he says. “Elected officials find it easier to plug money into police because often you’re dealing with really complex issues that might be hard to sell to the public. People understand the police. It’s an apple pie issue: crime in my community? Where are the police? Speeders? Where are the police? They’re kind of the catch-all for all social problems, and elected officials have allowed that to happen.”

A Conservative Miscalculation

Like so many other challenging issues in our society, ideology also plays a role, says Fraser.

“We seem to be divided into two camps,” says Fraser. “One camp believes crime is all about personal choice. Then there’s another camp where crime is all about social circumstances. In almost all cases, it probably involves both.”

Speaking metaphorically, Fraser says crime usually happens at the corner of opportunity and desperation. With the defund movement, progressives argue that the best strategy to lower crime is to invest proactively in frontline services to help people deal with stresses that are driving them to desperation.

Conservatives are more fixated on individual responsibility and champion a more reactionary, punitive approach to law enforcement. But statistics prove that strategy doesn’t work.

Not only is it horrendously expensive, it’s exacting a horrendous human toll, with police called upon in far too many instances to deal with non-criminal issues involving people in crisis.

“I worked at Carmichael Outreach for three years and we had a good relationship with the police,” says Fraser. “Oftentimes, they would get called for something that wasn’t somebody breaking the law — it was someone in crisis, whether it was mental health or addictions related. That doesn’t always produce the best outcome, where you have someone showing up with a gun when what we really need is someone with training to deal with the crisis.”

That’s where the defund movement comes in, says Stevens.

“We’re not going to get results if we just cut the police budget by $3 million.* What we need to do is take that money and invest in community organizations to relieve the pressure on police.”

Building Capacity

Frontline social service agencies would welcome the support, said one person who does outreach work with a Regina non-profit. We’ve agreed to not identify the source, who spoke off the record.

“We mainly work in rapid re-housing, helping women who have not yet found refuge in a shelter or who are otherwise exiting a shelter, to access and maintain housing,” they said. “Most of the women have been criminalized in some form due to homelessness, addictions and overall precarious lives, and are in regular contact with police and emergency services.”

While there may be some overlap in the people they serve, the person added, there’s a big difference between outreach workers and police.

“We work without the same access to training and resources, the same kind of ‘backup’ or protections for our safety, and without the same kind of awareness from the public of who we are and what we do.”

For non-profits running on shoestring budgets, every dollar counts. And every dollar that’s invested in those organizations helps build capacity, the person said.

“It’s frustrating to learn about the kind of money that flows to one municipal agency versus the always fluctuating funding we receive, and how we must constantly react and adapt to it. And, of course, it’s never enough.”

Through various formal and informal arrangements, police and frontline service providers in Regina and Saskatoon do work together now to promote public safety, Stevens says.

But more needs to be done.

“Those partnerships exist, but I don’t think they’re adequately resourced,” he says. “The defund movement isn’t an abstract idea. There are, if you will, shovel-ready programs in place. But it requires leadership, funding and a willingness for everyone to come to that common table to talk about complex problems.”

With growing public unrest over instances where police intervention has resulted in harm to vulnerable individuals, Fraser thinks the time is ripe to have this conversation.

“Police budgets, I think, have become a sacred cow,” he says. “It’s not as simple as saying ‘Take money away from the police and all our problems are going to go away’. But if the majority of police calls are non-criminal, then maybe that work could be done by existing non-profits, or by some new police model with professionals available to be part of the response when circumstances call for it.”

* As we were going to press July 7, Edmonton city council announced an $11 million police budget cut spread out over two years. It also created a citizen task force to review the Edmonton Police Service.


Crime And Punishment At The Polls

This fall, Saskatchewan voters will go to the polls in municipal and provincial elections. Police, justice and crime should be issues in both, says Regina city councillor Andrew Stevens.

“It spills over into so many areas such as anti-racism, reconciliation, homelessness, addictions, detox and police spending,” says Stevens. “It would press candidates to [move beyond] impulsive ideologies because you have to think about problems and solutions in complex ways involving partnerships, collaboration and negotiation. It’s not just crime equals more police.”

In Saskatoon, mayoralty hopeful Rob Norris signaled his interest in making crime and policing an election issue when he announced his candidacy on June 25, slamming incumbent mayor Charlie Clarke for being “passive” on crime.

Norris also criticized the Defund Police movement, claiming it would hinder efforts to diversify the police service.

Leaving the (specious) logic of that argument aside, Norris is a former Saskatchewan Party cabinet minister, so it’s not surprising he would take a “strong” stand on law and order. And his position would seem to be in line with the current Sask. Party government, which recently committed $120 million to add 430 beds at the Saskatoon remand centre.

At the same time, the province rejected a $1.3 million request from AIDS Saskatoon to establish a safe injection site.

Shawn Fraser, Saskatchewan director for the John Howard Society, says it’s a textbook example of the reactive (and expensive) law enforcement model the defund movement is pushing to reform.

“With the expansion of the remand centre, I feel it’s like ‘If you build it, they will come’,” says Fraser. “With crime, there’s always an element of personal responsibility. But there’s also a social element, and if we have a bureaucracy built around keeping people in prison that’s what’s going to happen. Likewise, if we have a bureaucracy around keeping people out of prison, then I think that will happen.”

Saskatchewan already has three times as much remand space as any other province, says Fraser. And while our crime rate, per capita, is probably higher than most provinces too, remand doesn’t depend entirely on the arrest rate. Instead, it’s also determined by our willingness to let people who have been charged with criminal offenses (especially minor ones) await trial outside of a cell.

“When the pandemic hit Saskatchewan in March there was a real fear about the virus getting into the prison system,” says Fraser. “The province didn’t talk about it too much publicly, but ultimately they released over 30 per cent of the Saskatchewan prison population.

“In the months since, we haven’t seen a corresponding jump in crime or decrease in public safety,” says Fraser “What that says to me is when we’re pressed to do it, we can get prison numbers down. But when we’re not pressed, we see growing prison numbers highlighted by the Saskatoon remand expansion.

“To me, that’s a signal we’re going back to our old ways of locking people up.”

Do voters agree with that failed strategy, or would they like to see a more proactive approach to police and justice issues? I guess we’ll see this fall. /Gregory Beatty