The October 6, 2019 CTV News article Number of police officers in Canada at lowest level in 10 years by Ryan Flanagan should create an interesting discussion between police officers, police leaders, municipal officials and the public at large. Relatively high salaries (which for the average cop is well-deserved), technology costs, expensive vehicles and fuel alone have caused police and political leaders much angst as they view a variety of service-delivery methodology and structural options to tackle this funding dilemma.

Policing is not a cheap business. It is most often the largest piece of a municipal budget and staffing is the biggest chunk of that. The average Canadian police service commits in excess of 80 per cent of its budget to salaries and benefits, so when funding cuts are required there is often little wiggle-room available and leaving staff vacancies becomes the only option.

Most police services are facing the same or at least very similar financial pressures. Trying to address call volume; maintain prevention programs; provide training and conduct investigations – amid turnstile courts; a rising gang and gun culture; public order matters; emerging crimes; mental health issues; and cuts to other community programs that lead to more demands on police, which are just some of the underlining challenges.

Some would argue that crime has dropped in some categories, so less cops are required. Tell that to an officer in a city that for 12 hours a day goes from call to call – often having several backlogged calls ahead, or to an officer in a rural area that has to wait 30 or 40 minutes for backup in a tense situation. I’m not aware of a police service in Canada that routinely has excess officers sitting around doing nothing, while waiting for a call to come in. If and when they do have some free time, they are doing preventative patrols, trying to catch up on reports or prepare for court cases that are coming at them.

Some crime categories have reduced, but where that has happened, it didn’t just happen through osmosis, but concerted prevention efforts made the difference. Prevention comes with a cost. It isn’t free. It requires time, partnerships and dedicated personnel – all of whom earn a salary to make it happen. The unacceptable option is to stop doing the prevention work and watch certain crime and traffic categories trend upward again.

Turning police roles into civilian personnel positions is often raised as a solution. That makes total operational sense in some instances – but not necessarily to save money. Police leaders still need a critical mass of officers to meet emergent/peak needs; prevent burnout; and to ensure a healthy workforce. This is not an easy task. We continue to hear the tragic stories of the impacts of stress on police officers as well as other emergency responders. Shortages of personnel that result in officer burnout do jeopardize officer health and wellness and do absolutely nothing to help recruit and retain the very best of personnel going forward.

The increase in gun crime in a number of jurisdictions is a significant cost factor. Every criminal case is much more complex to address than it once was. The days of Detective Joe Friday and his partner investigating homicides on their own are long gone. Court decisions and the “CSI” world in which police now operate have resulted in tremendous changes to investigative and court preparation processes. There are now dozens engaged in most cases and at times hundreds of officers involved in complex investigations.

There has never been a magic formula to determine exactly how many police officers it takes to serve a community, based on population. There are certainly municipality to municipality comparators to be considered, but there are many factors that come into play and they vary from city to city and town to town when you consider local social and economic issues and the geographic footprint of the jurisdictions. Community events, crime and traffic trends, labour unrest issues, public protests, weather, time of day, and much more will most often impact supervisor and executive decision-making on staffing and scheduling matters.

Police leaders can’t take a minimalist approach and staff a police service 24/7, 365 days a year, based on the minimum number of officers that have been required in the best of past circumstances. Nor can they staff platoons to meet the maximum staffing levels they may have required in the past, based on the occasional worst case scenario that may or may not ever occur again. There has to be a sensible medium. They have to assess all of these past factors when budgeting for the future, as well as conduct analysis of other upcoming community dynamics. Predicting the future based on the past isn’t always the best, but sometimes it’s all they have.

It’s a given that municipal and police service leaders have budget realities, but the current trend cannot continue. Yes, they must be innovative and explore a variety of options, but they also must do all they can to ensure the proper of number of officers to meet public and officer safety and wellness needs. They owe that to the members, the future of their police services, and the public they are sworn to serve.