Municipal leaders should step up in local policing debate

By Robert Washburn

The OPP are the Wal-Mart of policing.

Like the behemoth big box store chain, it comes into town to crush the competition by offering lower prices to consumers who have little in their pockets. It is predatory. The lower sticker price is attractive at first. But it is illusory. All kinds of corners are cut to reduce costs.

In the end, what seemed like such a great deal is not.

The OPP are not interested in profits. But, the questions about the larger picture need to be asked.

As Port Hope residents fight to save their police service, the rest of Northumberland, and the province, for that matter, also need to stop a moment and survey the political landscape.

None of these discussions focus on the frontline officers and civilians who serve with great honour and dedication. What this is about are the political agendas.

Policing in Ontario costs about $4 billion per year, according to figures released by the Ontario Police Services Board Association this spring. The organization says costs are rising by five to seven per cent every year, representing about $190 million.

In the past few years, approximately 60 small and rural police services contracted with the OPP because rising costs made it too expensive for them to maintain their own police service.

Many of the issues causing the increased costs are not local enforcement issues but downloading from the provincial and federal government. There is pressure to comply with more and more complexity on the job due to judicial decisions, rulings and inquests. Paperwork is a massive issue as the demand for reporting requirements increases.

Municipal police services take on such items as border security, counterterrorism, embassy protection, peacekeeping on First Nations lands, public events (G20), prisoner transportation and court security. The last two are very relevant locally.

On top of all of this, there are larger crimes that go beyond traditional geographic borders, like Internet crime, large gangs, warrants in other jurisdictions. And, just for good measure, there are the non-traditional items like school safety programs, victims’ assistance, mental health intervention, crime prevention education and so forth.

And to pour gas on a fire, all OPP officers will get an eight per cent raise in 2014.

To get a sense of the bigger picture, it is useful to review a list of existing local police forces in the province. Notably, when one removes the larger urban centres, like Toronto, Ottawa, North Bay, and the regional forces like Durham and Peel, the small town forces are an endangered species. Cobourg, Port Hope and St. Thomas are some of the last ones.

Bureaucratic logic would argue smaller police forces are inefficient and expensive. Yet, with increased responsibilities and a growing array of imposed mandates, rising costs cannot be avoided.

Rather than announcing an overhaul to rural policing, Queen’s Park is simply backing smaller forces into a corner. Finally, municipal politicians either raise taxes or cut services. To avoid the choice, the OPP rides to the rescue.

The fact that no party leaders ever take up the crusade to defend local police forces is proof they all want the OPP controlling rural policing. No sign could be clearer.

So what if this happens? Then, the nightmare begins.

If the OPP take over all rural policing, then they become too big too fail (just like the giant corporations taxpayers bail out). There is no recourse but to continue to pour money and resources into the OPP from local taxpayer’s pockets.

It is a provincial politician’s dream: complete control of the service, but somebody else is paying.

It will also place a huge amount of power into the hands of the Ontario Provincial Police Association, the union representing officers. Who will be able to stand up to such a large body when it comes time to reach settlements? Again, taxpayers will be held hostage.

Just like Wal-Mart, it will feel good at first when all those low prices come to town. But when there is nobody else to buy from, then we all pay.

The battle in Port Hope is not just about local policing. It is also about provincial policing policy and it is time municipal leaders and all residents stood up before it is too late. Then, it appears we will have no choice.