Dermod Travis: Time to bite bullet on regional police force for Metro Vancouver
The headlines are becoming a little too common for Lower Mainland residents: “Police probe homicide after man’s body found in vehicle parked in Surrey”; “City shocked by Julie Paskall’s ‘random’ murder”; “Prominent B.C. gang leader killed in targeted attack”; “Surrey man charged with killing three people”.
With the headlines come news reports that are often accompanied by a media ritual so predictable that most of the players likely know it by rote.
A local politician—frequently Surrey mayor Dianne Watts—will step in front of the cameras to express sympathy, a professor will proffer a few academic perspectives on crime, the police will state for the record that they’re treating the death as “suspicious”, and someone who knew the victim will shake their head in despair that their friend, neighbour, or classmate is gone forever.
And then everyone pretty well goes back to whatever they were doing before. Forgive the cynicism, but not good enough.
In response to what many see as a skyrocketing crime rate in Surrey, a number of observers have taken to comparing the relative strength of West Vancouver’s police force with that of Surrey’s, as a way to show that B.C.’s fastest growing city is getting shortchanged when it comes to policing.
The numbers speak for themselves: on one side of the Lions Gate Bridge there was the equivalent of 168 police officers for every 100,000 people in 2012, and on the other side of the Pattullo bridge that ratio was 137 officers. One would think that West Vancouver is at the epicentre of a crime wave in the Lower Mainland. Far from it.
In 2004, Statistics Canada developed a statistic that would not just measure the volume of crime, but also the seriousness of the offences. They created the Crime Severity Index. Think of it as the consumer price index for crime.
In 2012, West Vancouver’s crime severity index was 40.1. In Surrey, it was more than three times as high at 129.9.
But it’s easy to be misled by one-off illustrations such as comparing policing levels in West Vancouver with those of Surrey.
So why stop there? Why not look at how Metro Vancouver stacks up against Montreal and Toronto?
The four largest cities in Metro Vancouver—Surrey, Richmond, Burnaby, and Vancouver—have a combined population of 1.55 million. Put their police forces together and there are 161 police officers for every 100,000 citizens. On the other hand, Toronto has a force that numbers 203 officers for every 100,000 residents and Montreal has 223 officers for every 100,000 residents.
If Metro Vancouver has fewer cops, it should only follow that taxpayers are paying far less than their counterparts in Ontario and Quebec when it comes to policing. Bzz, wrong.
According to a Statistics Canada report, Police Resources in Canada, British Columbia spent $310 per capita on policing in 2011, smack in the middle of what Quebec ($297) and Ontario ($320) spent. The crime severity index between the three provinces is also telling: Quebec’s index stood at 73.5, Ontario’s at 61.1, and B.C.’s at 95.1.
So if British Columbians pay the same bucks as Ontario and Quebec for policing, has fewer cops and a higher crime severity index, what gives?
This may partially explain it: one in eight Canadians live in British Columbia, yet nearly seven of every 10 RCMP officers working the municipal beat in Canada are stationed in B.C.
Why have most provinces moved away from the RCMP for local policing? Because they’re pricey. Just this month, two communities in New Brunswick voted to end their contracts with the RCMP and establish local police departments to cut costs.
And with various RCMP detachments, local police departments, and transit police all operating in Metro Vancouver there are simply too many police forces and not enough police officers.
Wally Oppal was right. After all the hemming and hawing the issue has generated, it’s time for the communities that make up Metro Vancouver to establish a single regional police force, as he recommended in the final report of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry.
Who knows, maybe it will mean less of those media rituals playing out in the future.