Increased Canadian police funding doesn’t reduce crime, new study finds

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      A new study from academics at the University of Toronto and York University has found that there’s no proof to suggest increasing police funding in Canada lowers crime rates. 

      The paper, “Police Funding and Crime Rates in 20 of Canada's Largest Municipalities: A Longitudinal Study,” which was published in Canadian Public Policy, examined police department spending from 2001 to 2021 in 20 cities across Canada—including Vancouver—and compared it with the Crime Severity Index for those two decades. 

      “No consistent associations were found between police funding and crime rates across municipalities,” reads the paper, “and overall, net increases in spending per capita are not associated with greater net decreases in crime rates.”

      Like the majority (60 per cent) of the municipalities studied, police account for the single largest line item in Vancouver’s City budget. That number has only increased since 2021, as the ABC-majority council have prioritized measures like hiring 100 new officers and re-introducing police to schools as part of the controversial School Liaison Officer program.  

      Vancouver’s 2024 draft operating budget allots $440 million to police services—20 per cent of the total outgoing expenses—and an increase of almost eight per cent from 2023.

      For its part, the VPD estimates that it’ll need nearly $500 million by 2028. In November 2023, Police Chief Adam Palmer said that “it costs a lot of money to keep Vancouver safe. That’s what it costs, and people get great value for their money.” 

      That’s not borne out by the study, which notes that in 2019, Vancouver spent the most on police per capita of any major city. That number—$495.84—is well above the mean spending of $342.28 per person, and more than double Quebec City’s spend of $217.08 per capita. Vancouver also gives police a larger proportion of our budget than the average Canadian city, with that clocking in at around 20 per cent, compared to an average of 15 per cent. Only Winnipeg, Saskatoon, and Surrey channel larger chunks of their budgets towards policing.  

      Vancouver spends the most per-capita on police of any major Canadian city, as well as the fourth largest share of City budget.
      Seabrook et. al

      The study found that between 2010 and 2019, Vancouver’s police department spending increased by an average of 2.6 per cent (or $7.9 million per year). 

      Those numbers also don’t take into account some of the more dramatic recent occurrences in Lotusland’s police funding, like 2023’s City budget, which saw an 8.3 per cent increase to VPD funding ($28.7 million) approved. And there’s the new contract that officers signed in December 2023, which will see Vancouver cops becoming the highest-paid in Canada. 

      So, we spend a lot on policing. But that’s because it keeps us safe, right?

      ABC certainly thinks so, given their campaign focus on “public safety.” 

      The rise in random stranger assaults was a core part of ABC’s election narrative—with Mayor Ken Sim referencing, during a mayoral debate in 2022, a VPD statistic that there were four stranger assaults per day. (A November 2023 VPD report revealed that actually, there had been a “steady decline” in stranger assaults between 2021 and 2023, down to 1.1 per day by the first half of 2023.)  

      And ABC’s signature promise, to hire both 100 new police officers and 100 new “mental health nurses,” has seen lopsided follow-through. By October 10, 2023, 100 new police officers had been hired—along with the equivalent of only 9.5 new nurses.

      ABC is notably more generous to the VPD than the former council: an ideologically divided group under Kennedy Stewart that tried to cut the VPD’s budget, only to have that decision overturned. First-term ABC councillor Brian Montague is a former VPD officer who’s defended wearing the controversial “thin blue line” patch, while councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung is married to a cop; and the Vancouver Police Union made the unprecedented decision to endorse Ken Sim and the ABC Party ahead of the 2022 election. 

      In terms of crime, the VPD’s statistics for rate by incident paint a mixed picture. Crime per capita decreased in 2020 and 2021, but increased slightly in 2022. Violent crime increased a little (from 8.4 incidents per 1,000 people in 2019 to 8.7 in 2022), while property crime and “other crime” decreased: from 82.09 criminal incidents per 1,000 people in 2019 to 60.47 in 2022. But recent crime figures always present skewed pictures: in Canada overall, crime is way down from levels in the late 1990s, and your takeaway will always look different depending on your reference point.

      “Vancouver spent more than double per capita on policing in 2019 than Quebec City. The difference may in part be explained by the overall higher crime rate in Vancouver, which is approximately twice as high as Quebec’s,” write the recent study’s researchers. “Relatedly, Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Saskatoon have the highest crime rates and among the highest police budgets in recent years.”

      However, the study also notes that higher crime rates in communities with more may be reflective of “a detection bias, in which increased police funding leads to increased measurement of crimes.” It might not actually be that Vancouver has more crime, but that we simply have more police who respond to it. 

      One study rarely proves much. As the authors write, “further research and clarity on law enforcement funding are critical… We know little in the Canadian context about the relationship between changes to police budgets and actual policing practices, particularly how budgets shape decisions about who to arrest, who to charge, and for what alleged violations.”

      What we’re really paying for is a sense of security, for a certain kind of person—and that’s not unhoused people, drug users, Black people, or Indigenous people, all of whom are more likely to have negative interactions with police.

      So, for all Adam Palmer claims, it doesn’t seem like the VPD is a particularly good deal for Vancouver at its current cost. We fund the police well because that’s what we’ve always done—and they complain when we don’t. Which doesn’t seem like it keeps anything safe but their own paycheques.