Current crime rates in Ontario raise questions about police proposals for more money

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Appeared in Toronto Sun, February 9, 2023
Current crime rates in Ontario raise questions about police proposals for more money

It’s municipal budget season in Ontario. In response to a perceived increase in crime, several municipalities around the province are mulling significant increases to their policing budgets and hiring. For example, the Toronto Police Service wants to increase the police spending budget by 4.3 per cent (or $48.3 million) to $1.17 billion and hire 200 new officers. In Hamilton, the Police Services Board recently asked for a 6.7 per cent increase ($12 million) in its budget to help fund 18 new civilian positions and 13 new officers yearly until 2030. These proposals, and others around the province, are under review.

But are these proposed increases necessary? According to the data, crime rates in Ontario experienced a long decline beginning in the 1990s, grew recently starting in about 2015, but today still remain at historic lows.

At the same time, however, police staffing (adjusted for population) is also at historic lows. When crime rates began falling in the early-‘90s, the number of police officers (per 100,000 population) also dropped until the late-‘90s when the number began to increase—despite falling crime rates. Officers per 100,000 peaked in 2010 and then began to decline, with crime rates bottoming out around 2015. These trends suggest no clear link between crime rates and policing resources, but they can mask the fact that policing is ultimately local and local conditions and factors are important in shaping staffing needs.

Indeed, crime and police staffing levels vary greatly across Ontario’s major cities. Crime in 2021 (the latest year of available comparable data), as measured by Statistics Canada’s Crime Severity Index (CSI), which combines the number of crimes with their severity, was highest in Windsor, Thunder Bay, Brantford, Sudbury and London. Among these five municipalities, the average number of police officers was 172 per 100,000. And the average CSI score was 92 (compared to a base index value of 100 for Canada as a whole).

By comparison, among Ontario’s five municipalities with the lowest average CSI score of 28 (Mississauga, Brampton, Oakville, Burlington and Milton), the average number of police officers was 128 per 100,000.

And of course, we can’t forget Toronto, which had 169 officers per 100,000—the fourth-highest number among Ontario’s 30 largest municipalities—and yet had a mid-ranked CSI score of 58.

This suggests that more crime is sometimes associated with more officers, but not always. Even across the five communities with the greatest crime severity, there’s a fairly wide range in staffing. Thunder Bay had 200 officers per 100,000 population followed by Windsor (188), Brampton (182), Sudbury (152) and London (139). And there’s a much greater per cent difference between the highest and lowest in terms of police staffing than for crime severity.

For example, London has 31 per cent fewer officers (per 100,000) than Thunder Bay but London’s CSI is 81 versus Thunder Bay’s 98.

So, what does this mean for police staffing in Ontario municipalities this budget season?

Basically, policing and public safety is complex. There may be extenuating factors that affect police staffing and hiring in respective municipalities. For example, Windsor is a border city and entry point into Canada, which requires more policing, while Thunder Bay has longstanding issues with high homicide rates, which absorb substantial investigative resources. One also wonders if the presence of casinos in some of these cities may necessitate more resources.

At the same time, there’s a wide range in policing numbers across communities that share similar crime severity numbers. This suggests that some police departments can do a better job of sharing best practises, which could lead to better deployment of existing resources. With crime rates at historic lows, municipalities across Ontario should carefully consider any proposed spending increases, which may or may not be warranted.