More Cops, Less Crime? Not Necessarily…

The Cape Breton Regional Municipality has more police officers than it can afford.

Don’t look at me, I’m not the one who said it—it’s the considered opinion of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality Task Force, or The Mayor’s Task Force, a group formed in 2013 to “make recommendations regarding the organization and operations of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality.”

In that capacity, task force members Keith Brown, Alice Almond, Mary Beth Doucette, Owen Fitzgerald, Leroy Peach, Parker Rudderham and Cliff Murphy looked at Police Services:

One of the first issues was to attempt to separate the emotional pull of “we do not want to compromise safety” to the fiscal realities of what level of service can the CBRM afford. Wages consume approximately 85% of the total policing budget of $24 million and are essentially beyond the control of the CBRM. The settlements are subject to interest arbitration (binding) and the trends towards awards of salary increases are in large part set by regional or even national standards. This practice does not examine the ability of the CBRM to pay.

The task force then focused on a provincial program called “Boots to the Streets” (a name so catchy it is almost universally misquoted as “Boots on the Streets”),  introduced by the Tory government of Premier Rodney MacDonald in 2007. Rolled out under two justice ministers — Murray Scott and Cecil P. Clarke — the $16.7 million program added 138 officers to police forces in Nova Scotia (77 to municipal forces, 62 to the RCMP), including 19 to the CBRPS.

It proved to be what you might call a mixed blessing:

Programs such as “Boots on the Street” which are externally funded have substantially augmented policing services in the CBRM. However, the officers sourced through this program have been integrated into the regular policing regimen. Because the province has frozen support for the program at 2008 levels, the operating budget of the CBRM has to support more than $300,000 in costs for these officers (salaries and associated benefit costs). The cost would not have been budgeted for which means additional areas had to be cut to support these previously externally funded positions. The CBRM does not have the financial resources to continue to pay for these ”Boots on the Streets” officers if external monies are not adjusted to current levels.

Two years later, in March 2015, Cape Breton Regional Police Chief Peter McIsaac went to council  looking for $25.1 million (an increase of $754,000 over 2014) to fund his department. The extra monies (which, as the Mayor’s Task Force pointed out, have to come from somewhere) were needed to fund a 2.5% wage increase for police officers, dispatchers, jailers and civilian staff.

McIsaac told council the CBRM had 201 police officers, 167  funded by the municipality, 19 by the Boots to the Streets program and the rest through “a variety of government partnerships and programs.” McIsaac said the shortfall for the Boots to the Streets officers that year amounted to $179,123. The provincial government contribution for the program, he said, remained unchanged at $1.9 million.


Peter McIsaac

Cape Breton Regional Police Service Chief Peter McIsaac (Photo via CBRPS web site)

Camden, NJ

Having more police than you can afford or — dare we say it? — need is not a problem unique to the CBRM. According to a 2014 report from the MacDonald-Laurier Institute entitled, The Blue Line or the Bottom Line of Police Services in Canada? it’s a national problem:

Canada’s police are pricing themselves out of business; police budgets have increased at a rate double that of GDP over the last decade, while calls from the public for service have remained stable. Police associations have been happy to stoke public fears about safety, but the correlation between numbers of officers, crime rates, and response times has long been shown to be spurious.

I was reminded of this when I heard McIsaac’s year-end interview with Steve Sutherland of CBC Cape Breton’s Information Morning.

McIsaac expressed his concern that an upcoming review of Boots to the Streets would result in the loss of personnel in the CBRM. Just because crime rates have dropped, he said, is no reason to reduce the size of the police force:

Yes, crime rates have dropped but there’s a reason for that and the reason for it, the primary reason is we’ve had the appropriate people and the resources on the ground to actually…deliver the programs and investigate the crime.

This, you’ll note, contradicts the assertion in the MacDonald-Laurier report that correlations between police numbers and crime rates are “spurious.” I asked Christian Leuprecht, a political science professor at the Royal Military College and the author of that report, on what evidence he’d based this statement and he pointed me this 2016 study by YongJei Lee, John E. Eck and Nicholas Corasaro.

The authors (who get bonus points for a Big Lewbowski reference you must read the report to discover) reviewed 62 studies and 229 findings of (US) police force size and crime between 1971 and 2013. They concluded that “the overall effect size for police force size on crime is negative, small, and not statistically significant.” Changing police strategy, they concluded, “is likely to have a greater impact on crime than adding more police” (although neither has a particularly great impact and there’s is great debate about what actually causes crime rates to fall, about which, more later ):


Effect sizes from systematic review studies; Lee,Eck & Corsaro1
But having insisted that increased police numbers were the “primary cause” for low crime rates, McIsaac, then attempted to “stoke public fears,” telling Sutherland:

And I can tell ya, you go back and just do some studies in relation to a place like Camden, New Jersey, where they had all their cuts and you take your people away that can’t deliver the programs anymore, and I guarantee you, crime rates will go up and it’ll take you a decade to get them back down again.

That’s some high-end fear mongering — trim the number of police officers in the CBRM and we’ll become Camden, New Jersey.

To fully understand the insanity of that comparison, look at this table:



Cape Breton Regional Municipality0021025
Camden, New Jersey374767573338279

(Sources: Province of Nova Scotia; State of New Jersey, Department of Law and Public Safety)


Is McIsaac really trying to suggest that the only thing standing between the CBRM and 35+ homicides per year is 19 police officers (38 boots) semi-funded by the Province of Nova Scotia?



Sutherland questioned McIsaac about policing costs, noting that they are very high across Canada. McIsaac took great pains to assure the host that police salaries are not the reason why Canada spends so much on police services even though, as noted above, salaries accounted for 85% of police expenditures in the CBRM in 2013 (and about 90% of the $5.39 billion that Canadian municipalities spend annually on policing, according to the MacDonald-Laurier Institute report).

As the Globe & Mail pointed out in a 2012 editorial, police in Canada are paid very well indeed:

A first-class officer in Canada’s big cities now earns $80,000-$90,000 a year on average – before overtime and benefits. That makes them among the most generously compensated police in the world.

And never mind Canada’s “big cities,” according to information released by the CBRM to Leitches Creek resident Joe Bushell in 2015 (after the Nova Scotia Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Review Office ruled he shouldn’t have to pay $760 to receive it),  CBRM’s police chief was paid $130,383.28 in 2013-2014 while CBRPS staff sergeants received $97,234.37 that year.

Where McIsaac and Leuprecht are in agreement is that these high-paid officers are doing a lot of things that have nothing to do with law enforcement. As McIsaac told Sutherland:

[O]nly about 20-30% of what [police in Canada] do is actually related to crime stats…There’s all kinds of things that we do, crime prevention programs, not related to a crime stat, all kinds of security, public safety, traffic, drug offenses that are not crime investigations, most of the stuff that we do is not related to a crime stat…And the other part of it is, is the process has got us bogged down. That’s what’s causing the dollars and cents and the costs of policing here.

The MacDonald-Laurier Institute report makes the same point, but links it to the high salaries paid police officers:

Police work is complex, difficult, and demanding and should be well compensated. The real question is why police who are making upwards of $100,000 a year are performing so many tasks that are not really core policing duties and that other jurisdictions are delivering as or more effectively, efficiently, and productively through alternative service delivery in the form of both civilianization and outsourcing.

Faced with the same problem (did I say this was a national issue? It’s actually international) other industrialized nations have resorted to drastic measures to bring policing costs down.

Take England and Wales which, in 2012, introduced a 20% funding cut over four years that was expected to result in 28,000 fewer officers. To make up the difference, police forces planned to turn to outsourcing, private security companies and  “volunteer” police officers.

And if that seems draconian, wait until you hear what happened in Chief McIsaac’s touchstone city, Camden, New Jersey. In 2012, according to the New York Times, the city (population 80,000) opted to disband its police force entirely in favor of a county-run, non-unionized force.

The reason, officials say, is that generous union contracts have made it financially impossible to keep enough officers on the street. So in November, Camden, which has already had substantial police layoffs, will begin terminating the remaining 273 officers and give control to a new county force.

Sixteen months later, the Times was reporting some interesting results:

Dispensing with expensive work rules, the new force hired more officers within the same budget — 411, up from about 250. It hired civilians to use crime-fighting technology it had never had the staff for. And it has tightened alliances with federal agencies to remove one of the largest drug rings from city streets.

From summer 2012, when Camden moved to replace its police force, to summer 2014, shootings were down 43% and violent crime down 22%.

To be clear: high policing costs were behind the layoffs in Camden. High policing costs were limiting the number of “boots” on the streets. Camden solved this by busting the union and hiring more officers. If you thought (as I did) that Camden was a strange reference point for McIsaac in the first place, you must really be scratching your head now.


Crime Decline

Camden’s experience seems to support McIsaac’s assertion that more “boots on the streets” equals less crime. But the fact is, crime has been on 25-year decline in all industrialized countries and nobody actually knows why.

A 2015 study by the Brennan Center for Justice entitled, What Caused the Crime Decline?, explored 14 theories for the decline of crime in the United States (including the possibility that it’s connected to the removal of lead from gasoline).

The three factors that appeared to have had the greatest effect on falling crime rates, according to the Brennan Center, were “aging population, changes in income, and decreased alcohol consumption.” But these findings are vexing, as Matt Ford pointed out in The Atlantic in 2016. (For example, if alcohol consumption is connected to crime, then why aren’t crime rates higher in European countries, where per capita alcohol consumption is higher than in the U.S.?)

There’s another mystery associated with falling crime rates and that is, ‘Why does nobody know about them?’

According to the Pew Research Center, in the lead-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, “a majority (57%) of those who had voted or planned to vote said crime has gotten worse in this country since 2008.”

These polling trends stand in sharp contrast to the long-term crime trends reported by the FBI and [Bureau of Justice Statistics]. Both agencies have documented big decreases in violent and property crime rates since the early 1990s, when U.S. crime rates reached their peak. The BJS data, for instance, show that violent and property crime levels in 2015 were 77% and 69% below their 1993 levels, respectively.

Canadians are just as bad. In the 2009 General Social Survey  Stats Canada asked Canadians their perception of the prevalence of crime in their neighborhoods:

Although studies have shown both the prevalence and severity of crime to be decreasing (Brennan and Dauvergne 2011), relatively few Canadians believed this to be the case in their neighbourhood. More specifically, when asked about the level of crime in their neighbourhood compared to 5 years earlier, many Canadians (62%) stated that it had remained the same, while over one-quarter believed that crime had increased (26%). Less than 1 in 10 (6%) believed that crime had decreased in their neighbourhood.

Part of the answer seems to be — damn, you guessed it — the media. Says the Brennan Center:

Many social scientists agree that viewing newscasts that frequently include stories of horrific crimes can influence individuals’ perceptions of the rate at which these events are occurring across the nation as a whole. This would be fine if the number of news stories about crime closely tracked the actual amount of crime occurring, but there is good data showing that actual crime levels have little to do with how prominently the topic is featured in the popular press.

And how do politicians pander to voters who think their world is dangerous? By promising more boots on the streets, of course.


John Be Gone

Another issue I’d argue is germane to this discussion is the amount of social work police officers are expected to do. Police are called upon to deal with the mentally ill, the addicted and the homeless, although being mentally ill, addicted and/or homeless is not against the law.

This point was driven home for me in 2015 by John Be Gone, a sting operation in downtown Sydney that saw police charge 27 men with “communicating for the purpose of obtaining, for consideration, sexual services,” then name and shame those charged publicly.

John Be Gone illustrates the limits of law enforcement as a weapon against social problems.

Staff Sergeant Jodie Wilson (the first female staff sergeant in the CBRPS, appointed in 2016), who was deeply involved in the sting operation, told the The Cape Breton Post that about 90% of the women she’d come in contact with were “selling sex to support their prescription drug abuse” and about 80% were aboriginal. McIsaac went even further, telling the paper:

This is a very complicated issue. I know people said, just put more foot patrols down there and more visibility, but it’s well beyond just an enforcement issue. This is a serious issue involving girls. I’ll tell you, 99 per cent of them down there on the street are not there by choice, they are down there by their circumstances … it’s survival. There’s addictions involved here, there’s lack of housing, there’s lack of food, there’s lack of structure, lack of education…

Addiction, homelessness, hunger, education — it’s all there. How could the solution be “arrest a bunch of johns?”

In the wake of the John Be Gone operation, the Mi’kmaq women’s resource centre  was opened to try and help the women involved in what APTN calls Sydney’s “ugly underbelly.” In December 2016, Cheryl Maloney, a volunteer at the center, told APTN:

It’s been a very difficult year. But … we’re still here. The girls are still here. We opened our doors on volunteers and donations. We were pretty naïve when we opened the doors and signed the lease. We soon found out there’s issues around security. Mental health training (and) safety protocols.

The center relies on volunteers and donors to keep the lights on. If the driving force behind John Be Gone was the well-being of the women involved in street prostitution, wouldn’t it have made more sense to establish and fund something like the resource center than to launch an expensive police operation?

And as I’m writing this, the CBC is reporting on the dilemma facing Transition House, Sydney’s shelter for women and children fleeing abusive situations. Women are staying in the shelter for months or returning to violent partners because they can’t find good, affordable housing. Under the circumstances, couldn’t providing such housing  be considered a public safety measure — if not a crime-prevention measure? We know the police appreciate the importance of good housing because McIsaac ranked the renos of two police buildings among his highlights of 2016.


War on Drugs

This article is already too long and I can see your eyes beginning to glaze over so I’ll just touch briefly on this issue. McIsaac credited the CBRM’s 19 Boots to the Streets officers with getting $10 million in drugs and drug money off the streets of the CBRM.

He didn’t follow that up with “and that solved the problem of drugs in our community,” because, of course, it didn’t. All the drug busts by all the police forces in North America have not solved the drug problem — they haven’t stemmed production, they haven’t stemmed smuggling, they haven’t stemmed trafficking and they certainly haven’t stemmed addiction, although they have jailed addicts (which could lead to them getting clean but obtaining drugs in Nova Scotia prisons doesn’t seem to be that difficult).

Prohibition didn’t work for alcohol and it’s not working with drugs.


The ChiefVincent Campbell

In case you’re starting to suspect I have something against police officers, let me introduce you to my grandfather (pictured right).

That would be Vincent Campbell, a police officer in Sydney from 1919 to 1965, and chief for the last 15 years of that run.

My grandfather was chief when Sydney was much bigger (population 33,000) and crime rates were still on the rise but “cop-to-pop” ratios, as McIsaac calls them, were much lower. As for the resources at the disposal of the various police forces (every municipality had its own), they were limited, to say the least.

In all of Industrial Cape Breton, there were 116 full-time and 39 part-time police officers, which would be the equivalent of 135 full-time officers for a total population of 129,572 compared to 201 police officers for a population of 97,398 in the CBRM today.

According to the Finnis Report (a 1968 study in support of Industrial Cape Breton amalgamation by municipal planner Eric Finnis), some of the local police forces had fewer than 10 men and the entire Island was served by “four obsolescent jails.”

Communications were also primitive — in Sydney, the desk sergeant had a phone for incoming and outgoing calls and communication with cops on the beat was accomplished via a telephone mounted (appropriately) on a telephone pole in town.

My grandfather’s pension, after 46 years on the force, amounted to about $70 a month.

So, clearly, I’m not arguing for a return to the state of affairs in the ’60s, but I would suggest that having so many more police officers at a time when the population is smaller and the crime rate is lower doesn’t make sense.



Chart, Municipal employees, Industrial Cape Breton, 1968 (Source: Finnis Report)

(Source: Finnis Report)



It didn’t make sense to the The Mayor’s Task Force either, which recommended:

An external, independent review of Police Services in the CBRM should be conducted and focus on Administrative structures, affordability, centralization of services, targeted early retirements, officers on long term accommodations, and provision of services to specialized clients such as the Regional Hospital.

Of course, they recommended that four years ago…


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