Policing issue needs to be resolve for sake of residents, officers

First published:
April 21, 2004

Policing in West Northumberland is dog breakfast – a mishmash unfit for any normal consumption. The latest developments punctuate a litany of politics and poor decisions for nearly a decade, leaving taxpayers, frontline officers and civilian staff demoralized, as well as undermined.

The latest scene in this ongoing soap opera took place last week when Hamilton Township politicians announced they is looking to get the Ontario Provincial Police to provide costs for police service, once the township’s contract expires in 2005.

The Ministry of Community Safety and Correction Services is involved because the township doesn’t want to pay the cost of two more officers. Chief Garry Clement is merely following guidelines for an officer-to-population ratio. The ministry has provided a verbal assurance the proposal is reasonable and a written one is expected to arrive.

With a 66 per cent increase the number of calls for service in Hamilton Township, politicians must decide between continuing to provide the same level of service or watch it drop. The chief is suggesting his officers will only respond to emergency calls and not every need for service if the township doesn’t hire the officers.

To compound the problem, Hamilton Township is refusing to pay $62,000 in unforeseen expenses from last year for court security and the hiring a communications supervisor, as mandated by the province.

It is ridiculous we have reached this point.

No one should be shocked. It seems residents and politicians are incapable of reason when it comes to policing. Port Hope splits its service between the municipal force in the old town, while the former Hope township area is looked after by the OPP. It was done because no one could agree on a single municipal force. Only recently Brighton threatened to go from OPP to a local force after the budget skyrocketed, while Quinte West just folded its municipal service to hire the OPP. Meanwhile, Trent Hills taxpayers is being asked to swallow a $2.2 million hike for OPP salaries this year.

The provincial government needs to take a serious look at how police forces are being run.

It was only about decade ago when the NDP government of Bob Rae tried to bring more accountability to municipal policing by introducing police service boards. Politicians in large cities were too close to police and it appeared the public’s interests were not being served. The idea was to appoint community members to ensure every day people had a voice at the table, not just politicians.

The experiment has failed, miserably. The system is dysfunctional and in need of serious reform. Taxpayers can’t afford the current model. Community voices are not being heard.

Cobourg is a good example. The fight earlier this year to select a chairman for the police board was acrimonious and bitter demonstration of the lack of co-operation.

The budget debacle is incomprehensible. The Cobourg police board set its budget last month with a unanimous vote, Deputy Mayor Bob Spooner said in an interview.  During the entire deliberations by the board, the municipal members raised only two concerns: don’t buy a new van and the need for new officers, he said. The board agreed to cut the van, but kept the officers.

Councillor Lloyd Williams, the other municipal representative on the board, made a bold move by reducing the convention budget to $4,000 from a proposed $5,500.

Hamilton Township representative Gary Woods is a non-voting member and only observes. (Is it any wonder Hamilton Township council is driven crazy by what is going on?)

Then the budget is sent off to councils for approval. Under the Police Services Act, council can approve the overall budget or not. It cannot make any changes to specific items. Williams is pleading for the budget to go through, but don’t be stunned if it gets sent back. More than anything, like Hamilton Township, Cobourg politicians are putting on a show for voters.

Taxpayers must wonder why municipal representatives don’t make more effort during the police services board meetings to draft realistic budgets acceptable to their respective councils. For the most part, they can’t, since a majority of cost increases are made to meet provincially set standards. There is little room to move.

To have the provincial government takeover municipal policing will never happen. Successive government have tried to download the costs but not the authority. Meanwhile, local taxpayers fork over for provincially mandates services without any power to stop it. With all the power and little of the costs, there is no impetus for change.

To elect a police board might be an option, but then it must be autonomous from municipal government, and that would be a major fight with local politicians across Ontario.

In the interim, the province must stop this ping-pong back and forth between OPP and municipal forces. Capitalistic values of competition do not have a role when determining policing services. Municipalities must be stopped from shopping every time they don’t get their way. We cannot have solid, long-term service when every couple of years politicians figure they can gain cheap points with voters by threatening to crossover to the other police service. It is impossible to work under such conditions.

Something must be done. Residents grow tired of the politics of policing. In the meantime, local boards need to be more responsive and transparent to the community, while politicians need to back down with threats and begin working with local police forces.

Taxpayers want to know they can pick up a phone and within a few minutes help will arrive, whether it is a stolen bicycle or a threat of violence. And officers also need to know the community backs them 100 per cent.

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