Too many cops?

The crime rate is down but police forces are growing. We’re poorer as a result, but not necessarily any safer.
VANCOUVER, B.C.: JUNE 17, 2011 - Vancouver Police maintained a presence at English Bay after social media reports of a large beach party encouraged young people to gather there in the evening Friday June 17, 2011 in Vancouver, B.C. There are no reports of any problems. ( Ian Lindsay /  Vancouver Sun)
too many cops
Ian Lindsay / Vancouver Sun

This spring, Tamara Cartwright dropped off an envelope at her local post office outside Lethbridge, Alta. A friend had sent her a jar of hemp-based ointment, so she replied with a thank you card, wrote her name and return address on the envelope and, in a decision certain to haunt her for years to come, enclosed four grams of her homegrown marijuana, enough for perhaps four cigarettes. On an April morning some days later she returned to the post office to pick up another package. Moments later, police pulled her over, handcuffed her, put her in a cruiser and hauled her off to the police station.

It made quite a spectacle, says the 41-year-old mother of four, who suffers from colitis and is one of more than 10,000 medical marijuana patients registered with Health Canada. “It was embarrassing,” she says. “I was still in my pyjamas.” She emerged four hours later with a trafficking charge for giving away those four grams.

Her charge is part of a recent marked increase in arrests for cannabis offences. Cannabis arrests jumped 13 per cent in 2010 to 75,126. Of those, almost 57,000 were for simple possession, a 14 per cent jump from the year before. (The statistics reflect cases where the arrest was the most serious charge a person faced, not the thousands more where a pot charge was tacked onto a string of more serious crimes.) The cannabis arrest rate is an anomaly at a time when the overall crime rate in 2010 fell to its lowest level since the mid-1970s.

Ironically, Cartwright’s legal predicament may be linked to that falling crime rate, which comes at a time when policing costs are climbing relentlessly and the number of sworn officers in Canada is at its highest level in almost 30 years. It may simply be that with less overall crime, police have the time, staffing and inclination to focus on minor drug arrests. The vast majority of those arrested are younger than 24, and mostly male, if past findings hold true. And the majority of those arrests are for pot possession, “the low-lying fruit,” as Dalhousie University criminologist Christopher Murphy puts it.

Heavy policing levels may also explain the preponderance of manpower-intensive RIDE and other roadside screening programs searching for impaired drivers or seat belt infractions, as well as the semi-permanent speed-traps established in Toronto and other cities, and the steady police-generated rise in traffic ticket revenue.

Whether such priorities make for a safer Canada is open to debate. Certainly, many question the wisdom of saddling some 57,000 people last year with arrest records for cannabis possession, limiting their chances to cross borders or gain employment. “The reality is, most of the people who are charged are relatively young people who are just starting out in life,” says Neil Boyd, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University, who estimates there are close to one million Canadians with cannabis convictions. “So, they are being handicapped for something that I would suggest more than half of Canadians over the age of 30 have at one time or another engaged in—and that’s conservative.”

The counter-cyclical nature of drug arrests and overall crime, like strangers passing on up and down escalators, was noted in a 2009 analysis by Statistics Canada. “For example, targeted initiatives to ‘crack down’ on drugs may result in more incidents being identified by police, rather than more incidents actually occurring,” said the report by StatsCan analyst Mia Dauvergne. “Likewise, police may focus law enforcement efforts more on addressing drug-related crimes when time, resources and priorities permit; in other words, when other types of crime decline.” StatsCan said effectively the same thing this summer when it released its report on 2010 crime rates. Indeed, there’s evidence pot use fell last year, even as arrests soared. Health Canada’s alcohol and drug monitoring survey showed marijuana use by Canadians 15 and older dropped to 10.7 per cent in 2010 from 14.1 per cent in 2004. It begs the question: are soaring pot arrests and traffic violations a manufactured crisis created by too many police chasing too little crime?

There are obvious security benefits to the current peak in policing levels. While crime rates have fallen, police reported more than two million criminal code incidents last year, 437,000 involving violence, hardly an insignificant number. Closely targeted initiatives led last year to an astonishing 36 per cent increase in child pornography offences. Tom Stamatakis, president of the Canadian Police Association, representing 41,000 rank-and-file members, says there’s no simple correlation between falling crime rates and increasing police resources, but “I would like to think that the police community can take some credit for those reductions achieved in a variety of categories.” For example, he cites the use of crime analysts to map crimes and help draft enforcement strategies specific to local neighbourhoods, as well as targeting chronic offenders, and following them through the criminal justice process to ensure they’re jailed and off the streets.

Many of the factors driving up police costs have little to do with crime, adds Stamatakis, a veteran Vancouver police officer. Charter of Rights cases have required a higher standard for obtaining arrest warrants, and for the level of information disclosure given to defence lawyers, he says. There’s also a cost for continually revised training standards for things like use of force, and more robust police oversight and investigation of complaints, he says. “That just adds to the administrative duties of a police officer and has an impact on that police officer’s time.”

Rising police costs, valid or otherwise, are harder to justify in an era of falling crime rates. The expense eats into the budgets of other community programs, yet to question police and government-directed policing priorities is tantamount to heresy. “There doesn’t seem to be any consistent opposition other than from pointy-headed academics,” says Boyd of the punishment-focused crime agenda. It’s difficult to gauge the impact of police levels on crime rates, says Murphy, another academic. “What we have is a very crude system of allocating funds and resources without any clear ability to document whether these funds are being invested wisely, whether they’re producing results.” Last Christmas season, the Ontario Provincial Police RIDE program charged 294 people with impaired driving, which can only be a good thing. But to do so required police to check more than one million vehicles, a massive undertaking for a .029 per cent capture rate. Perhaps such a show of force is a necessary deterrent, but are there more efficient strategies?

Certainly until now, police forces across North America have benefited from the fact that in increasingly conservative times, no politician at any level and of any stripe wants to question police staffing or to be labelled soft on crime. “I don’t think we can ever have enough police officers,” Toronto Mayor Rob Ford said during the campaign that won him city hall last fall, well before today’s harsh budgetary realities risk dampening the mayoral ardour. In Vancouver, Mayor Gregor Robertson is several thousand kilometres to Ford’s left, both geographically and ideologically, but he loves the cops, too. In fact, he would have loved a whole lot more of them on the streets the night of the Stanley Cup final riot—if only the budget permitted it.

As for the federal Conservatives—Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews and Justice Minister Rob Nicholson—love seems such an inadequate word. Their tough-on-crime agenda has been very good to them. “This is the third mandate that we’ve received, and we keep getting stronger every time we continuously put this [crime agenda] before the Canadian public,” Nicholson told CKNW radio during a recent visit to Vancouver. “And I can tell you I’m very grateful.”

Neither he nor his government was thrown off message by the inconvenient release by Statistics Canada in July of news that the Crime Severity Index, which tracks more serious crimes, was at its lowest level last year since that measure was introduced in 1998. Nicholson is adamant that Canadians live in fear, though attempted murders fell to their lowest rate since 1977, and homicides to the lowest level since the mid-1960s.

Nicholson dismisses those who question the government’s tough-on-crime agenda, or the need for the omnibus crime bill coming this fall that will put more people in jail, with a host of mandatory minimums, will keep them incarcerated longer, and make it more difficult to have criminal records expunged. “We’ve made it very clear that we don’t govern on the basis of statistics,” said the justice minister. “We govern on the basis of what law enforcement agencies have told us. What victims and law-abiding Canadians have told us.”

On Monday, Nicholson weathered criticism of the Tory crime agenda from a generally hostile crowd at the Canadian Bar Association annual meeting in Halifax. They passed a resolution condemning the increasing use of mandatory minimum sentences, but Nicholson was adamant the bill will go ahead as planned. “I think mandatory minimum sentences are quite reasonable,” he said. “It’s our job to provide guidance to the courts.”

And yet there’s an argument to be made that as much as it seems a comfort to have overflowing jails and a police officer on every corner, the law of diminishing returns suggests otherwise. In 2010, after years of steady increases, there were 203 sworn police officers for every 100,000 Canadians, the highest rate in 30 years. Total spending on police topped $12 billion in 2009, the last year for which costs are available. That’s a 7.3 per cent increase from the year before, and the 13th year in a row that costs have climbed, even after adjusting for inflation. “The current rate of growth and cost isn’t sustainable,” says Murphy, whose research has included policing and community resources.

Policing and prison costs have already hit the wall in the United States and the U.K. In the U.S., a survey by the Police Executive Research Forum found that 51 per cent of major American police forces had their budgets cut by an average of seven per cent last year, with most expecting further cuts this year. In some American states, Illinois being one, prisons became so crowded and costs so high that hundreds of dangerous felons have been released, with predictable results, after serving just weeks of their sentences. In England and Wales, the deficit fight leaves police facing a 20 per cent budget cut and a reduction of about 20,000 officers by 2015.

In Toronto, the policing issue has come to roost at city hall, where Ford and his council confront a $774-million deficit next year. Ford’s critics have painted the challenge as a battle between policing costs and what Ford calls “nice-to-haves”: libraries and a host of other soft services, from the arts and day cares to social housing and street programs for the most vulnerable—services that can also contribute to a more civil society. For all his determination not to see police officers laid off, Ford wants the force to cut eight per cent of a near $1-billion budget. Some estimate that will mean cutting as many as 750 officers and 400 civilians.

Whether such a reduction would lead to chaos seems unlikely. Police duties like traffic control at construction sites and bylaw enforcement could be handled by lower-cost personnel. Toronto has about 216 officers per 100,000 citizens. That’s the fourth highest rate of police personnel among the country’s 30 largest police forces, for a city with a crime severity index that ranks a lowly 17th.

Financing the rising cost of policing isn’t a challenge unique to Toronto. “You have extremely well-paid police in Canada,” says Murphy, “maybe the best-paid police in the world.” Nationally, police costs, most going to salaries, have consistently, and sometimes dramatically, exceeded the rate of inflation every year since 1997—something to think about the next time you get a traffic ticket.

Hiring more police wins political points. The unintended consequence in a lower-crime environment, however, is a substantial jump in rates of traffic violations, as police become ticket collectors in part to justify their numbers and their cost. “I think that’s a real revenue generator,” says Murphy. “Cities put pressure on police services to provide revenue, which, in turn, helps justify budgets.”

A Maclean’s survey of selected cities found errant drivers are an increasingly lucrative source of funds. In Calgary, the number of speeding and other traffic violations jumped 31 per cent between 2005 and 2010. That dumped more than $39 million into city coffers, in addition to a provincial share of almost 17 per cent per cent of ticket revenue and a 15 per cent share for a victims of crime program. In Toronto last year, city police issued 700,721 traffic tickets, a 48 per cent increase from five years earlier. That amounts to some $60 million in fine revenue flowing through Toronto’s court service, of which the city gets the lion’s share. Yes, perhaps, every traffic stop makes the streets a little safer. Still, one wonders if the 94 per cent increase in stop sign violations means Toronto attitudes toward this most basic of traffic signs have degenerated these past five years, or if police have a greater incentive to enforce.

In Montreal, with the largest per capita police presence among major cities, that isn’t even open to question. The force admitted earlier this year that some officers have what it described as ticket “objectives” rather than the more loaded term “quotas.” Perhaps as a result, moving violations (bad lane changes and such) jumped by 93 per cent over the past five years, and speeding ticket revenue, in a city long noted for its spirited drivers, soared by 140 per cent. The tickets are issued in the name of safety, driven by nationwide concerns over traffic deaths and drunk driving, rather than by revenue needs, says Stamatakis, the police association head. “If there was any overt attempt to try and use the members that I represent to generate more revenue in that kind of obvious manner, there’d be a bit of a backlash.”

By that standard, Canadian roads must be safe indeed. All of Canada’s major cities are well represented on the National Speed Trap Exchange, a website of the Washington-based National Motorists Association. The site allows drivers to post and share the favoured hunting spots for traffic police in cities and towns across North America. While hardly a scientific measure, Edmonton and Montreal drivers have listed 13 Internet pages of declared speed traps, Calgary lists 26 pages. Toronto lists a whooping 64, just two short of the 66 pages for Chicago and Los Angeles combined. Gary Biller, executive director of the motorists’ association, says drivers the past two years have noted a jump in ticket enforcement, “coincident with the economic downturn.” Police seem to be ticketing at a lower speed threshold, he says, “where, in the past, such minor violations would have resulted in a warning, if a traffic stop was made at all.”

But while traffic tickets are an annoyance, and often a deserved slap on the wrist, an arrest or criminal record for a relatively minor pot charge is a life-altering experience. “It’s telling that it’s young people, and the ones generally with the least amount of money, that are arrested,” says Jacob Hunter, policy director for the Vancouver-based Beyond Prohibition Foundation. He finds the arrests a questionable use of police resources, since most of the cases never make it to court. In B.C., it’s Crown attorneys who determine if charges are warranted. Since court dockets are overwhelmed, Crown lawyers often use their discretion not to proceed with minor pot charges. Currently, some 2,300 backlogged criminal cases in the province, many for serious offences, are at risk of being thrown out because they exceed the 18-month threshhold for “unreasonable delay.”

Police could conceivably push far more serious crimes off the docket if all of the 15,638 people they arrested in B.C. for cannabis possession last year ended up in court. No surprise, then, that fewer than one in four violators were actually charged. The rest, however, live with an arrest record that has the potential to trip them up at the U.S. border, or to raise doubts in an employment background check. That said, people can and do get charged, especially in small-town and northern B.C., says Hunter. Compassion clubs, which have been dispensing marijuana for years for a variety of alleged ills, often for people without Health Canada exceptions, have also become a recent target. RCMP raided the Burnaby club a day after Hunter’s interview with Maclean’s.

Pot law enforcement varies widely, based on where you happen to be caught, and the police force’s prevailing philosophy. In most provinces it’s police rather than prosecutors who lay charges, and their blotters in small towns across Canada are full of pot possession cases. By some estimates only about half of those charges lead to convictions. Often charges are stayed for first offenders, or they are diverted to anti-drug programs. In cities like Vancouver, small amounts are likely to be seized without arrest, says Kirk Tousaw, a lawyer who frequently defends pot cases in B.C.’s lower mainland and Vancouver Island. “I certainly run into people all the time who think marijuana possession is essentially legal in Canada,” he says. “I disabuse them of that quickly, because, unfortunately it’s young people and visible minorities who tend to get caught up in these types of offences for a whole bunch of reasons. They don’t have a place to go. They’re less likely to have police exercise discretion to let them go.”

They’re also more likely to be convicted. Minor pot charges don’t usually qualify for legal aid. Tousaw’s basic retainer is $3,000. “If you hired me it would typically cost you not much more than that, but not any less than that,” he says. “For a young person, particularly, that’s a pretty serious burden.”

In Quebec, a simple possession charge will likely be dropped after negotiations with a prosecutor, if the person makes a donation to a charitable organization of between $100 and $500, says Montreal lawyer Xavier Cormier-Lassonde. An arrest record remains, however. His fee for such negotiations runs between $800 to $1,500. As a result, he says, poor people are less likely to win a discharge. “But I can say that Quebec’s lawyers, prosecutors and judges are reluctant to give a criminal record to someone caught for a first offence of simple possession.” That said, almost half of the 11,423 Quebecers arrested for pot possession faced a criminal charge last year. And in Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan, a significant majority of those arrested by police ended up facing criminal charges.

Enforcement of marijuana laws ebbs and flows over time. There were fewer than 22,000 pot possession arrests in 1991 before the numbers began to climb. In 2003, cannabis possession charges dipped seven per cent to just over 41,000. That year, the Liberal government of the day proposed legislation to decriminalize small amounts of cannabis, though it failed to become law. And a constitutional challenge to the prohibition against pot was before the Supreme Court of Canada. Among the arguments was whether the risk of imprisonment for pot possession constitutes cruel and unusual punishment considering the small perceived level of harm.

Attitudes toward pot use hardened with the election of the Conservatives. One of Stephen Harper’s first acts on forming a minority government in 2006 was to declare the liberalization of pot laws a dead issue. “[I]f we legalize drugs like marijuana, it will make it easier for our children to get hold of it,” he said in a speech to the Canadian Professional Police Association. “That is why my government is opposed to legalizing drugs—especially because of the damage it can do to our cities and our communities because of increased addiction and crime.”

True to his word, legislation expected to be included in his omnibus crime bill calls for a mandatory minimum jail sentence of six months for growing as few as five pot plants. Another expected change will make it substantially slower, and more expensive to remove criminal records, even for minor offences.

But while the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed the challenge to marijuana prohibition in 2003, the judges were hard-pressed to find significant personal or societal harm in its use. The majority of judges sided with the existing law, in part because there were no mandatory minimum sentences for marijuana possession and because users were rarely jailed. The tougher new laws may well trigger another court challenge, predicts Hunter. Louis LeBel, one of three dissenting judges in 2003, said that even the threat of jail amounts to “legislative overreach” for marijuana possession. “Moreover, besides the availability of jail as a punishment, the enforcement of the law has tarred hundreds of thousands of Canadians with the stigma of a criminal record?.?.?.?”

Among those is Tamara Cartwright. In a reflection of the confusing state of Canada’s cannabis prohibition, police let her leave with the parcel she’d picked up the morning of her arrest. It held 25 grams of pot. Her Health Canada certificate allows her to possess cannabis, to grow up to 39 plants and to legally smoke her prescribed eight grams daily. She says it eases the inflammation in her colon, controls the pain and stimulates her appetite. “If I don’t smoke it, I don’t eat.” The only alternatives, she says, are heavy narcotics and steroids that erode bone density and cause other side effects. “You can’t take care of kids, you just can’t have any life, when you’re all strung out on prescription drugs.

In early August, Cartwright pleaded guilty to the serious offence of trafficking. She felt she had no choice, even though she says there was “no malicious intent, no criminal intent. I was giving it away.” She couldn’t afford a lawyer. Her husband works out of town, and with children to look after, even a faint prospect of incarceration was too much to risk.

She accepted the Crown attorney’s offer of a six-month conditional sentence. She must be at home during an overnight curfew, and refrain from intoxicants, ironically, except her marijuana. “I’m thankful to be sleeping in my own bed, put it that way,” she says. “I could be incarcerated.” She’s not sure how jailing her would have made Canada safer for children and families. As it is, with a trafficking conviction, all hope ends of taking her youngest son to Disneyland. “I’m totally screwed, and won’t be able to travel, ever.”

In her view, all pot prohibition does is profit dealers and gangs, and create more criminals and victims at a time when the country seems to be turning the corner on crime. “We’ve got to start thinking about what we’re doing to our youth,” she says. Which is what the police and the federal government say, too; coming at the argument from the opposite side of an unbridgeable divide.