Saturday, March 2, 2024

Policing: Knowledge is the Key to a Sound Decision

By Steven Starr

steven starr bwAfter a proposal from the Owen Sound Police Service, Meaford is exploring its policing options. In part three of a three-part series, retired OPP officer Steven Starr takes a look at police wages. Meaford staff will provide a report to council on Monday February 10, and a public meeting focused on policing will be held on Thursday February 13 at 6:30 pm at Woodford Hall.

In this final article I first want to tackle the topic of wages. If you think the information provided in my first two articles was surprising given what you’ve read previously I assure that you will be astounded by the truth concerning the OPP wage increase.

The truth behind the 8.5% increase:

In 2012, the OPPA (OPP Association), along with other public service unions, were brought together by Finance Minister Dwight Duncan, in what the government called its ‘Case for Change Initiative’. He asked that the union heads accept a two year pay freeze. The OPPA was alone in accepting the government’s austerity measure, with the provision that their salaries be put on par with the highest-paid service in Ontario in 2014. As promised, in 2014 their salaries were put on par with the highest paid and they were awarded an 8.5% increase.

Looking back at the litany of coverage on this subject throughout 2013, including public comment by local officials, I can only describe it as shameful. Particularly in Owen Sound, where officials publicly decried OPP wages, going so far as to describe the OPP as “the most expensive, highest paid police force in the province”, while keeping secret their own collective agreement with a wage increase exceeding what the OPP is projected to receive several months into the future. Additionally, regardless of what comparators you want to use, it is hard to argue the OPP should not be among the highest paid. They reside everywhere in the province without regard for cost of living, the working conditions vary from the busiest highway in North America to isolated northern communities, they are required to provide specialized services for municipal police agencies, and they have the highest rate of on-duty violent deaths of any police service in Ontario.

As with any other sector, police wages are settled through a bargaining process. Because the police don’t have a legal right to strike an arbitration system is in place should an impasse arise. The end result is that there’s relatively little difference in police wages province-wide. Consequently, money saved by drastically lowered wages by any one police service would evaporate as they struggled to recruit and retain trained officers who would migrate to nearby services with a higher pay scale.

The highest-paid police services are not the most expensive, how can that be?

In the coverage surrounding the proposal by Owen Sound Chief Sornberger and other officials, they have used terms like ‘critical mass’ and ‘economy of scale’ to explain how savings can be achieved for both involved communities. I won’t argue that assertion but it is a one-sided comparison because the critical mass of the OPP, an organization with close to 9,000 employees, is at least 100 times larger than the Owen Sound PS. That same critical mass allows the OPP to police for 35-60% less than municipal services on average as indicated by the Auditor General.

If the OPP costs less, why aren’t they competitively bidding for more municipal contracts?

In agreement with the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police the OPP has said they will not solicit opportunities to provide municipal contracts. On the contrary, there is nothing stopping municipal police services from approaching neighbouring municipalities with a pitch to offer lower policing costs as occurred here. If a municipality makes a written request for OPP policing, however, they must respond and provide a costing on a “fair cost recovery basis” as legislated by the Police Services Act of Ontario.

The OPP’s Municipal Policing Bureau completes their costing proposals. They are responsible for any shortcomings or incorrect estimates a contract might contain. I’m not aware of any OPP agreements where costs have exceeded those outlined in the contract.

In Meaford’s case the municipality has annually received a reconciled rebate and patrol hours have exceeded those required by contract. Question: Who takes responsibility in a proposal such as the one before us, prepared by arm’s-length consultants, as opposed to the city or police agency offering the policing services?

There is only one taxpayer.

The nature of rural Ontario makes it fertile ground for personal relationships, dreams, and agendas, although our current provincial government too, as we all know, has made agenda-driven decisions that have cost us dearly and damaged their credibility at the same time. Question: Does the nearly $300,000 in start-up costs (including adding a communications tower which the OPP already has and will continue to use), costs associated to redeploy 8-10 OPP officers, and the abandonment of the 12 year-old police facility with holding cells in Meaford in favour of a new office downtown, represent true savings for the tax payer?

Are there other solutions that will help reduce the cost of policing in Meaford?

To achieve more savings due to critical mass and economy of scale, municipalities currently OPP-policed could consider a consolidated county model. This has been done with great success in places like Caledon, Wellington County, Lambton County and New Tecumseth (Alliston). Both the crime rate and cost of policing have declined in these communities. Caledon attained the dubious distinction of being named the safest city in Canada by Maclean’s magazine for several years running only to be unseated last year by Wellington County. Grey County, using the county levy system, could insure that the costs are fairly apportioned to the participating municipalities. I’m not a politician, but it baffles me that this option seems to be off the table in Grey County. Municipalities happy with their own police services, such as Owen Sound, will be unaffected so I see little harm in taking a look at what they are doing in the places cited.

I might add as a closing remark, that despite all the hype about policing costs everywhere, most families in this county and elsewhere routinely pay more for a monthly TV package than they do for police protection in their respective communities. I sincerely hope my three articles have provided you with insight into this complex issue that is so very important to our communities. Travel abroad, get away from the resort or the cruise ship, and you’ll understand why quality policing is so important in every society.

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