No doubt most people have heard that the police have come to City Council to request a $310,000 increase to their annual budget. This increase alone could add as much as 4.4% to our municipal taxes (a 1% increase in taxes produces about $70,000) which are already some of the highest in the province. (In a 2010 survey by the Vancouver Sun, Nelson’s tax rates placed us 27th out of 166 BC communities.)
Regardless of the expense, ensuring that our community is safe and secure must be one of our core priorities. In addition, we must also make sure our officers are safe doing a job that can be anything but safe. I can fully appreciate this, as my nephew and his wife both serve on Toronto’s police force, and I often worry about their safety.
But before we make a commitment to increasing our police budget and living with the extra taxes required to support this increase, we need to take a deeper look at how our police services compare to other communities. We also need to examine the root causes of crime in our community to see if there is a better way to address these problems.
First, a quick look at the numbers…
According to the NPD’s presentation to council, Nelson has a population of just over 10,000, but they claim we are closer to 16,000 due to a daily influx of people who come to shop, work and visit. This would bump our officer-per-citizen ratio up from 1:577 to 1:941. Using this argument, the NPD state that we need a police force appropriate to a community with a population of 16,000. The problem with this approach to looking at the numbers is that almost any other city could make the exact same case for adjusting their numbers, yet they don’t. Castlegar, Trail, Kamloops, Revelstoke — all undoubtedly have thousands of visitors who come into town every day to work, shop, and access services, so could they not adjust their numbers upwards as well?
Take Whistler for example. With a population of 10,620, it is almost identical in size to Nelson, but it has a police force of 24 officers compared to our 17. The key difference between Nelson and Whistler is that they also have the capacity for 35,000 overnight visitors compared with our maximum capacity of maybe 1,200. (We have 358 hotel rooms and approximately 50+ vacation rentals.)
If Whistler’s population can swell up to four times its normal size, as it routinely does, it’s justifiable that Whistler should have a larger police force. And even with those extra officers, Whistler also has a much higher police incident rate, with 1,717 annual Canadian Criminal Code offences compared to our 994. Whistler also reports case loads of 72 per officer compared to our 58 case loads per officer. To put these numbers into perspective, Whistler experiences about 70% more criminal offences than we do, with a police force that is only 40% larger.
How do we compare to other communities?
When compared to other BC communities in the 5,000 to 14,999 population range, our police force does pretty well:
- Average case load per officer: 70
- Nelson case load per officer: 58
- Average crime rate: 102
- Nelson crime rate: 101
- Average population per officer: 689
- Nelson population per officer: 577
- Average policing cost per capita: $205
- Nelson policing cost per capita: $301
It’s important to note that, currently, our per-capita spending on policing is almost 50% greater than average spending in similar-sized communities.
But instead of comparing Nelson to similar-sized communities across BC, the NPD’s presentation compares us only to Oak Bay and Central Saanich on Vancouver Island. The only similarities between these communities and Nelson — besides our similar sizes — is the fact that these cities also have independent municipal police forces, rather than RCMP. But in many other important respects, Oak Bay and Central Saanich are nothing like Nelson. Both are essentially suburbs of Victoria, both boast significantly higher median household incomes, and both have older populations (meaning fewer people in the age demographics that are statistically more likely to commit crimes).
We need to address the root causes of crime in our community
Which brings me to my point about getting to the bottom of what might be contributing to crime in our community. Most criminologists agree that poverty is one of the key drivers of crime. Low household income, inadequate housing, and persistent unemployment/underemployment can all contribute to the kind of frustration and social isolation that exacerbates crime. Nelson has all of these problems.
Police are ultimately a band-aid solution. And that’s not to disparage band-aid solutions. We need them. But the nature of a band-aid is to staunch a wound after it’s been inflicted. If we can avoid wounds in the first place, so much the better.
So before Nelson City Council approves such a significant increase to our police budget, we should investigate how that money might be better spent. If we truly want to reduce crime in our community, perhaps the way to do it is to tackle things like poverty and housing affordability. The question is, if we are prepared to invest another $300,000+ annually to combat crime that may result from poverty, are we prepared to do the same to fight poverty itself?
To summarize my key points…
- Nelson already has property taxes that are higher than 80% of other communities in BC.
- Adding $310,000 to police budget would mean a 4.4% increase to annual municipal taxes.
- Nelson already has a higher ratio of police to citizens than other BC communities.
- Our per capita spending on policing is already 50% higher than other similar-sized BC communities.