New & Improved: My proposal to budget for crime prevention

Just before the holiday season got into full swing, I had the opportunity to sit down with Chief of Police Matt Torigian. We had a great chat for nearly 1 1/2 hours. We met after I sent a tweet that stated I would support his 2012 budget request if he supported my proposal to budget for crime prevention.

I included a link to my post “Budgeting for Crime Prevention” that I was prompted to write by a request by the Waterloo Region Police Services for a $8.5 million budget increase. You may have read it here or possibly the slightly revised version that appeared in the Kitchener Post.

I would like to share some highlights and thoughts on that meeting and an updated proposal on how Waterloo Regional Council should budget for crime prevention starting with the 2012 budget.

In a week, Regional Council will finalize and approve its budget for 2012. I hope that my thoughts can be taken into consideration in that process. I also hope to have them considered as part of the process for the 2013 budget.

My chat with Chief Torigian

As he mentioned in an e-mail inviting me to meet, the Chief was interested in learning more about my proposal and suggested that we had much in common. Indeed, we do. We both share a passion for preventing crime by addressing the root causes. Our conversation centred mainly on how best to make that happen.

The Chief’s primary concern about my post was that he felt it pitted law enforcement against measures to be smart on crime by addressing its root causes. He believed that by doing so I might just be helping people who were more concerned about the size of the police budget than our shared goal to prevent crime. The result could be police services that are less than required without getting any increases for programs that helped reduce or eliminate the problems that can lead to crime.

Chief Torigian honestly believes that his budget as originally propose is the minimum that Waterloo Region requires for adequate police services. He contends that while the police budget has seen significant increases over the last decade that it still accounts for approximately the same percentage of the local municipal budgets as it always has.

He showed genuine interest in my proposal and how it would work. While he seemed supportive in principal, I did not come away from the meeting with his endorsement of any part of my proposal. I expect that was in part because he anticipated his own budget request getting a rough ride. In fact the day after we met, regional council asked him to go back to the drawing board and revise his proposal.

One of my goals was to make the Chief aware of how far $8.5 million dollars goes to addressing the root causes of crime by social service agencies. I shared my research of the budgets of about a dozen relevant charities and showed how that much money would double the budget of even the largest of those I picked. In fact, it is more than the combined budgets of nine well known local charities. I said how I knew how hard these agencies worked for every dollar that they got and how much they would love to have the ability to do more. My purpose was to put the request into perspective and why I was proposing that more be done to help the work of these agencies.

When I saw that news, I understood what he meant when near the end of our chat he said that the region was about to embark upon an interesting social experiment. He wasn’t predicting the success of my proposal, rather he knew he would be required to revise his budget to be less than what he thought was an adequate level of service (as backed up by WRPS statistical analysis).

Reducing the police budget

Seeing as the police budget is being revised, I’ll share a thought or two on how that could happen.

The idea of ending free police escorts for funerals has been floated. While not a big ticket item, I support ending that as a free service since it is a luxury we can no longer afford. More importantly, it’s a luxury I don’t think we can any longer justify. I suspect that over the years the service is not accessed as much as it used to be due to changes in our society’s preferences for funerals and burials.

I wasn’t going to mention the retention bonus that is often raised as a way to trim the budget. It is less than 1% of the overall budget and wouldn’t make much of a dint. But given the fact that there is a retention problem with the bonus and inadequate staffing is blamed, it really does seem to an unnecessary expense. I find myself agreeing with Devon Girt who wrote a letter to the editor pointing out that if the officers agreed with ending the bonus, it would cover the desired hiring of new officers.

But even if these changes are made, Chief Torigian will have a challenge to bring in a budget that will be “acceptable.” When asked where I would cut, I suggested that I understood only about 25% of the forces time was spent dealing with crimes and that therefore 75% of the resources were going to other tasks. I suggested there must be room for reductions in those areas (see #4 below).

Note Jan. 12: I obviously did not have the police board’s budget meeting in my calendar. After I put this post up, I saw that many of the decisions related to the police budget had been made. See this article in The Record. I’m not sure that it matters much though since I would have posted pretty much the same content today as I would have a week ago.

My new and improved proposal

As a result of our discussion, I have revised my original proposal. Rather than asking Waterloo Region to make a choice between law enforcement and crime prevention, I am looking at them as a complete package. I also realize that there are few, if any, new dollars available to make my proposal a reality as it would require.

What hasn’t changed are my priorities. I remain concerned about the sustainability of large annual increases to the police budget and that we need to more aggressively address the root causes of crime. In fact if the Chief is right and we are entering into an interesting social experiment by having fewer officers than the stats indicate are needed, it’s even more critical that we are making investments in people facing challenges in life or better yet helping them to avoid challenges.

Looking only at the regional budget in terms of dollars and cents and arguing to keep taxes as low as possible and avoid increases is a false economy. There are economic consequences to our decisions today and we’ll need to pay the price at some point. It may not be 2012 but we may need to pay more for law enforcement in the future in terms of police, the courts and prisons than we would need to if we addressed issues before they get to the point that enforcement must be a bigger part of the solution.

1. Increase Crime Prevention Council budget by at least the same percentage as police budget

The first part of my proposal is similar to what I previously suggested. Before I said the Crime Prevention Council budget should increase by the same percentage as the police up to the rate of inflation and that then there would be matching funds dollar for dollar to a new Waterloo Region Smart on Crime Foundation. I’m tweaking that to recognize fiscal realities. As a matter of principle though, I believe both regional bodies addressing crime should receive the same percentage increase.

2. Fund a new Waterloo Region Smart on Crime Foundation

I’d still like to see a Waterloo Region Smart on Crime Foundation created. I’ll admit though that what I first suggested isn’t realistic. My new idea is that the Region of Waterloo would commit to putting aside $1 million a year for 10 years or $2 million a year for 5 years to establish this foundation–if not even quicker. It could be its own entity, be part of the KW Community Foundation or Cambridge & North Dumfries Community Foundation–or better yet some foundation with a regional mandate.

I’d like to see at least $10 million in the fund and that grants be given up to the amount of the annual return on the invested funds. At all times, there should be at least $10 million dollars building funds to support programs addressing the root causes of crime.

3.  Enacting a poverty reduction strategy for the Region of Waterloo

The Region already has an opportunity to put its money where its mouth is.

I know that work is being done by the Region on a poverty reduction strategy. Ensuring that work is properly funded and that the plan itself has enough funding is a key piece of addressing the root causes of crime.

The Region’s new strategic plan has several strategic objectives in the healthy and inclusive living section that present reasons for optimism. But decisions on the allocation of budget dollars and decisions made when finalizing the 2012 budget will determine how serious is the effort to achieve substantive progress on these objectives.

I remain as committed to supporting this process as I was a year ago.

4. Increase public awareness of who can help and how to make contact

In talking to Councillor Tom Galloway, I learned that the increase in calls for police assistance is outpacing even the demands for policing created by our growing community. But the police are not  always the best service to respond. Handling these types of calls stretches resources.

I’m confident that our social service agencies are better suited to addressing many of these needs instead of a police officer. Chief Torigian noted that this shift could create capacity issues and in general preferred that police continue to be the initial contact point. There are definitely situations where the police are best equipped to handle a situation even if it isn’t criminal, but I’m sure an increase in need for social service agencies would help fundraisers get the financial gifts to address them.

211 can help people find best services

In many cases, people call the police because they don’t know where they could turn for help or how to contact them. There’s a brand new service in the region that is not well known that could help to shift calls to a social service organization in the community. The 211 service is designed to help people find and connect to community resources. Admittedly, it was only launched in May 2011 but I suspect if you asked any 10 people in downtown Galt, Fairview Park Mall, the UW Technology Park or the Blue Moon, you’d be lucky if you found many, if any, who knew about this great service.

Now with the 211 infrastructure in place, we need to maximize the benefits of it by making sure as many people as possible in Waterloo Region know about it. I’m hoping that we’ll see a significant effort in 2012 to raise awareness that it exists and how it can help. Doing so is a relatively easy way to reduce demands on the resources of our police services while in many cases better addressing the root causes of crime.

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