One Last Thing

Ask the Right Questions

One of the most important issues in policy development is to make sure that the subject being scrutinized is accurately identified so the right questions can be asked to help get the most effective answers. This is critical because the converse is also true; ask the wrong questions and you will get the wrong answers.

Nowhere is this reality more critical than in the ongoing debate regarding what has been called the ‘Economics of Policing’. It appears that the point of the exercise is for all levels of government to figure out how they can cope with the reported increased costs of policing, especially at a time when fiscal restraint is looming (due, in large measure, to seemingly unrestrained spending in other less urgent sectors).

Not surprisingly, superficial ‘answers’ abound such as: there too many police officers, or their salaries are too high. While these are legitimate issues of inquiry, even a cursory analysis reveals that, per capita, police ratios are not significantly different, nor are the rates of wage increases much different from other public groups, including the lawmakers themselves.

So if it’s not bloated overpaid police services, then what is the problem?

To properly answer that question we need to start by recognizing that ‘policing’ is not a stand-alone function, immune to influence from the multiple environments in which it operates. Policing is, in fact, a critical, but not exclusive, component of our criminal justice system, which actually has multiple (hopefully) interacting institutions. Additionally, it is an undeniable reality that what happens (or doesn’t happen) in one component of the justice system has significant impact on the others.

So let’s look at the environment(s) in which modern day policing works and see what changes have occurred that might be relevant to the costs being incurred. The first place to examine, of course, is the criminal court process itself. Since the introduction the Charter of Rights, some 30 years ago, our court process has evolved (devolved?) into one whose primary function is not to determine innocence or guilt or even find the truth about what happened in a particular incident, but one where the dominant issue is: “is the evidence admissible?”

This change of focus has been gradual but it is now, unquestionably, a process-focused system. Forget the incriminating nature of what was found after the search, or heard on the wiretap, the issue has become did the cops fill out the right forms and comply with every nuance known or suggestible because if they didn’t the evidence will almost certainly be inadmissible, and, without evidence, a “not guilty” verdict is inevitable. And when you’re in the well-paid business of helping people avoid criminal responsibility for their actions, that’s what counts.

A process-focused system is also one that is inherently prone to delay as evidence takes a back seat to admissibility. It also doesn’t help that we’ve developed a legal aid system where the amount paid to lawyers is based on how long it takes to complete the case. Throw in an antiquated duplicative hearing process and you begin to understand why more cops spend their days filling out paperwork and cooling their heels waiting to testify rather than doing foot patrols, protecting the public, and solving crime.

The good news is that if we ask the right questions, we will begin to see where improvements can be made, like: increasing mandatory provincial court jurisdiction; using the Contraventions Act for minor offences; defining content (in designated forms) for judicial authorizations to obtain evidence; and moving to a full-time, salaried Legal Aid system rather than one that rewards delay.

Let’s also make sure that we do everything we can at our border (and between ports of entry), including with analytical surveillance technology, to stop the illegal entry of guns, drugs and people – because what gets through at the border ends up on our streets, and all too often becomes a police responsibility.

Police officers are also involved in crime prevention through various mental health, addiction, housing and education partnerships. While incredibly effective, they further deplete police resources. It’s also worth noting that vast bureaucracies existed in these areas previously but more effective results seemed to materialize when the cops get involved. How about providing funding from those sectors to support the police involvement rather than just complain about increased policing costs?

The economics of the justice system is an important and complex issue where we need to ask the right questions to ensure we get the right answers. If we do, real progress is possible.       

Scott Newark is an Associate Editor at FrontLine Security magazine.
© FrontLine Security 2013