Opinion Column

Police budgets bloom despite crime decline

Police budgets are not in line with falling crime rates and that's unfortunate, writes 24 hours' Daniel Fontaine. (FILE PHOTO)

Police budgets are not in line with falling crime rates and that's unfortunate, writes 24 hours' Daniel Fontaine. (FILE PHOTO)

Back in the early 1990s when the cold war really began to thaw, a term known as the "peace dividend" was popularized by former president George H.W. Bush and former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

As Western democracies watched the once mighty Russian Empire collapse, they revisited the need to spend billions each year on their military arsenals.

Social activists then hoped the "peace dividend" would be spent on more progressive causes such as public housing, education and health care.

With a recently released Statistics Canada report showing crime rates continue to plummet, some of those same activists might today might be calling for a new "police dividend."

According to the report, the overall crime rate dropped 6% in 2011 compared to the previous year. You have to go back to 1983 to find a rate this low.

The most credible theory why crime is on the decline relates to demographics, not more policing.

The largest cohort of active criminals, young men, is steadily decreasing. In other words, the bad guys are getting older, greyer and simply aren't up to doing as many break-and-enters as they once did.

If crime rates continue their steady decline, why are we not seeing a "police dividend" in Canadian cities?

In Toronto, despite Mayor Rob Ford asking the cops to cut their budget by 10%, their police board recently asked for an additional $6 million dollars from city hall.

The story is similar in Winnipeg where the police budget ballooned by 50% between 2005 and 2012. This compares to the budgets of other city departments that climbed by 26%.

Even as Vancouver City Hall was planning layoffs and slashing budgets, one department appeared immune to the cuts. According to former city councillor Tim Louis, "once elected, Vision followed through by hiring 100 extra police officers, and giving an extra $13 million to the VPD in 2009 alone."

Regardless of which city or administration you look at, the issue of skyrocketing police budgets has become top of mind for civic politicians. That's because while fewer people are committing crimes, police boards are oblivious to this new reality.

Allocating some of the "police dividend" into new parks, swimming pools and child care centres would seem to make a lot of sense. Unfortunately, if the past is any indication, plunging crime rates don't automatically translate into smaller police budgets.

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