Paying for the PoPo: About That $27M Police Budget

Peter McIsaac

Cape Breton Regional Police Services Chief Peter McIsaac (photo via CBRPS website)

In his presentation to the CBRM Police Commission last Thursday, Cape Breton Regional Police Service (CBRPS) Chief Peter McIsaac made the case for what he termed a “slight” $763,650 (2.9%) increase to his 2018/19 budget.

As he explained to commissioners, the entire increase will be eaten up by wages, salaries and benefits which will account for 90% of the $26,994,915.


Cop-to-Pop Ratio

McIsaac insisted there is little fat to be trimmed from his $27 million budget:

You’ve heard me say it many times, but we are a very lean organization. We employ 202 sworn officers, a number we’ve stayed at for the last three years, and you have to remember that only 167 of those are funded by CBRM. At that number of 167, we operate far below the national standards for police-to-population ratios, which is 190 officers per 100,000 population.

Let’s take a closer look at that.

First of all, whether the CBRM is paying for them all or not, it has 202 officers on its streets, and McIsaac seems pretty determined to ensure the side hustles that pay for those additional 35 officers — deals with Membertou, RCMP Traffic Services, the School Board and the Nova Scotia Department of Justice — remain in place. So our police-to-population ratio is 202 to just-under 100,000, which is well above the national “standard.”

And second, I put “standard” in quotation marks because it implies someone has done the research and come to the conclusion that 190 to 100,000 is some sort of optimal police-to-population ratio, when it’s actually just the national average, as you can see from this Stats Canada table:

Source: Statistics Canada

Source: Statistics Canada. Click to enlarge.

In fact, elsewhere in its analysis, Stats Canada puts the average police-to-population (or “cop-to-pop”) ratio even lower than 190 per 100,000:

In 2016, the provincial and territorial rate, which excludes the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) headquarters and Training Academy, was 187 officers per 100,000 population.

McIsaac’s claim to running a “lean” operation is based on having held the number of sworn officers steady at 202 for the past three years. But the obvious question to ask is, do we need 202 sworn officers? Across the country, the number of police officers per 100,000 population has steadily declined from 203.1 in 2010 to 189.5 in 2016 — a national “standard” McIsaac did not mention to commissioners.

Our 202 policemen for just-under-100,000 population means we have more cops per pop than Toronto (190), Calgary (168), Edmonton (183), Winnipeg (197), and Vancouver (196).

Even if we use McIsaac’s (dubious) 167 per just-under-100,000 figure, we’d still have more cops per pop than Quebec (133), Hamilton (151), Kitchener-Waterloo (141), London (148), Burnaby (116) and Kingston (154), among others.

Bring the focus down to Atlantic Canada and we have more cops per 100,000 than St. John’s (166) and way more than Codiac Region-Moncton (125). We have more than PEI (153). And while Halifax, at 219 police per 100,000 population, has us beat, Halifax is one of the three most policed cities in Canada — along with Victoria (236) and Montreal (229).

With our ageing and shrinking population, falling crime rates and retiring senior officers, the CBRM seems perfectly positioned to put the checkbook aside for a minute and ask itself how many police officers it actually needs.



In addition to its sworn officers, the CBRM has 30 civilian staffers. The “civilianization” of Canadian police forces is an actual thing — one Stats Canada explores in its 2016 findings:

Police services are increasingly made up of civilian members such as clerks, communications staff, and managers and professionals. This increase in civilian membership is referred to as civilianization. Civilianization is “the practice of assigning non-sworn employees to conduct police work that does not require the authority, special training, or credibility of a sworn police officer (Griffiths et al. 2006). It has been argued that through redistributing duties to civilian members, effectiveness and economic efficiency may be increased (Griffiths et al. 2014). At the same time, caution has been expressed that civilianization be implemented in a way that is mindful of the duties that require sworn officers and that ensures that the police service and the work environment benefit (Morrell 2014; Peak 2010).

Civilians account for 13% of CBRPS personnel. That’s not just below the overall percentage of civilians employed by Canadian police forces in 2016 — which stood at 29% — it’s below the national average as of 1962, the first year in which data on civilian staff was collected. In that year, civilians accounted for 18% of police services personnel. Even if we use McIsaac’s 167 figure for sworn officers, counting only those paid for directly by the CBRM, civilians would still account for only 15% of CBRPS personnel.

A 2014 MacDonald-Laurier Institute report on policing had this to say about civilianization:

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.

For the record: I am not advocating outsourcing or replacing unionized policemen with non-unionized civilians. But hiring unionized civilians to do tasks that do not require the skills and training of a sworn police officer seems like a reasonable course of action for a cash-strapped municipality like the CBRM.

In fact, McIsaac himself actually proposed a little “civilianization” to council last week, arguing that the force needs an HR person to serve as a case manager handling the files of officers — numbering, on any given day, between 15 and 30 — on leave of some description. That HR position will be advertised at a salary of $70,000 which McIsaac compared favorably to the $107,000 salary of the Staff Sergeant’s position they’re eliminating. And if the new case manager is successful, s/he might be able to put a dent in the $900,000 in overtime the force paid last year as officers covered for their missing colleagues.

(For the record, the question of why as many as 30 of the CBRM’s sworn officers — 15% — can be on leave on any given day of the week is beyond the scope of this article, but is obviously one deserving of an answer — for citizens and police officers alike.)


Pricey boots

But I would argue the need for change goes beyond hiring more civilians to perform non-core work within the police department. I would argue the CBRM needs to find other ways to handle many of the matters that are now falling to the police to handle by default. As McIsaac told commissioners last week:

Our socio-economic situation with things like high rates of unemployment, lower levels of education, mental health disorders, poverty, drug activity, all point to crime. You heard me say this before but the police have gone from the agency of last resort to the social agency of first choice, expected to be responders to just about anything and everything that happens in our communities.

While I hesitate to contradict the chief, I feel the need to point out that unemployment, low education, mental illness and poverty don’t necessarily “point to crime.” They point to social problems that, for reasons I bet nobody could justify, we’ve decided to ask the police to deal with. McIsaac said the CBRPS received an astounding 65,000 calls for service in 2017. Clearly, the vast majority of those calls were not crime-related.

Totally not the kind of Boots on the Streets Peter McIsaac is talking about. (Photo by Ted Dillon/CBC)

Totally not the kind of Boots on the Streets Peter McIsaac is talking about. (Photo by Ted Dillon/CBC)

But is the answer really to accept that the police must handle all our community’s problems? Couldn’t we take some of the money now being used to maintain an arguably over-sized police force and direct it to professionals or agencies attempting to address social issues like education, poverty and mental illness?

We could start with the $1.9 million the province pays to fund 19 CBRPS officers through the stupidly named “Boots to the Streets” program (which virtually everyone calls “Boots on the Streets” so I might as well too). Introduced by the Rodney MacDonald government in 2007 (under two justice ministers, Murray Scott and — wait for it — Cecil P. Clarke), it added 138 officers to police forces in Nova Scotia at an overall cost of $16.7 million then promptly froze the funding. As a result, McIsaac says the $100,000 per officer the CBRPS receives from the province fails to cover the roughly $129,000 it now costs to pay, equip and train them. (According to 2018-19 CBRM budget documents, the shortfall the CBRM must make up is $520,000, although you probably won’t hear CBRM Mayor Cecil P. Clarke complain about it too much, being as he’d have to lay the blame at the feet of former Justice Minister Cecil P. Clarke.)

But $100,000 would certainly pay, equip and train a social worker, even one specializing in mental health and addictions issues.

McIsaac tried to scare commissioners by suggesting that if the province does not increase its Boots on the Streets contribution, he may have to reduce his staff by four officers. That would leave us with a police force of 198, so in police-to-100,000 population terms, we’d still be head of Toronto, Calgary, St. John’s and Moncton. I don’t find that prospect particularly scary. (And we’ve already established that even if our force were reduced to just those officers paid directly by the CBRM, we’d have a higher cop-to-pop ratio than many, larger Canadian cities.)

I also don’t find the “impressive numbers” McIsaac cited to make the case for these Boots on the Streets officers very impressive. Last year, according to the chief, they were responsible for:

  • seizing $1 million worth of drugs.
  • seizing $90,000 in cash.
  • laying 246 drug-related charges.

I’ve heard that the price of street drugs has dropped pretty significantly in recent years, but I don’t believe $1 million worth of drugs is considered impressive even if it’s all seized at once, so it’s certainly not impressive as an annual total.

And I’ve watched enough TV drug dealers to know that the guy bringing in $90,000 a year is probably about to be cut from the crew.

And really, is there anything easier in this world than laying “drug-related charges?” To know if this number means anything, we’d have to know what kind of charges we’re talking about. Breaking up a fentanyl lab? Impressive. Charging someone with possession of cannabis months before possession of cannabis becomes legal? Not so much. I’d also like to know how many of these charges actually held up in court.

But the bottom line here is that all these “impressive numbers” are related to the endless, hopeless war on drugs which North American police forces have been waging unsuccessfully for decades. There will always be drug seizures and drug-related charges because they do nothing to end the drug problem. Their main purpose may be simply to provide stats to justify $27 million police budgets.


Some fat

Finally, I would like to point to one area where McIsaac’s operation is decidedly not “lean,” that would be in its assignment of 13 unmarked police vehicles to senior management.


A 2011 Dodge Durango, which Frank Magazine reports is the police vehicle assigned to Chief Peter McIsaac ( Paywall)

A 2011 Dodge Durango, which Frank Magazine reported as the make and model of the police vehicle assigned to Chief Peter McIsaac (Paywall)

You will remember this was a bone of contention between McIsaac and the union, which argued the vehicles in question should be available to on-duty officers. I don’t have time to get into the details here, but that whole situation — including the trial of Officer Wade Lavin and the suspension of union executives — bugs me on a number of levels and I intend to write more about it. For now, I’ll just say that McIsaac’s response was so draconian, the question of whether 13 senior managers in the CBRPS should have the use of police vehicles got lost in the shuffle.

I asked a number of Atlantic Canadian police forces about the use of vehicles by senior staff. Most didn’t reply. Cst. Carol McIsaac provided a response from the Halifax Regional Police, but it was not particularly informative:

HRP has a fleet of operational vehicles, both marked and unmarked, all equipped with emergency equipment including lights and siren.

As per policy, the chief of police distributes those vehicles to senior officers and their divisions which may result in the vehicles being driven after hours or home if necessary for operational purposes.

Any further details and/or information would require a FOIPOP request.

But the chief of the Saint John Police Force (which has 166 sworn officers and 42 civilian members) not only answered my email, he answered my question. According to Chief John T. W. Bates:

We have four managers with take home cars: Chief (1), Deputy Chief (1), Inspectors (2).

Bates, you may recall, announced in December he would retire after only two years in the chief’s office. He offered no official reason for leaving, although his announcement followed the city’s decision to cut the police budget by $1.25 million. (Saint John’s, with a population of 67,575 has a total budget for 2018-19 of $152 million compared to the CBRM’s proposed 2018-19 budget of $147 million. Like the CBRM, protective services account for a big piece — 33% — of Saint John’s spending.)

I can’t comment on the financial management of the Saint John Police Force, but I can say that in this one small area — use of take-home cars — Bates is running a leaner operation than McIsaac.


Lie detectors

Finally finally, the CBRPS’s Polygraph Unit came up during the Police Commission meeting and at long last I got a sense of how this dubious technology is employed in the CBRM: it’s employed for EVERYTHING!

Between 1 December 2017 and 15 February 2018 alone, the CBRM’s two-technician unit (that’s one more technician than the Toronto police force employs):

Assisted members of Major Crime, General Investigative Section, Arson Investigator and Patrols with several investigations, conducting Polygraph tests, taking statements an conducting interviews, and advising on interview strategy and technique.

Never mind that polygraph evidence has not been admissable in the Canadian criminal justice system since 1987 or that…But wait, this is ground I’ve covered before. Rather than doing all that work over again, I’ll just direct you to my earlier article.

I run a very lean operation, don’t you know.




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