An effort last month to trim spending on Toronto’s police service by one per cent—significant savings on a budget that has crested to $1 billion a year – was easily defeated by a vote of 12-28 at city council.
Councillors did vote to redirect $220,000, representing just 0.022 per cent of police spending, into other crime prevention initiatives.
Many police reform advocates were undoubtedly disappointed Toronto’s cop budget couldn’t be tamed further. But on the bright side, domestic and international experience tells us that Toronto’s $220,000 sliver for crime prevention will bring positive results. In fact, it is crime prevention programs rather than more policing that provide the biggest bang for the buck in reducing crime.
Toronto is not alone in its concerns over the cost of police: the Federation of Canadian Municipalities says the increases in Canadian police budgets are unsustainable and are crowding out early intervention and crime prevention, to the detriment of public safety.
"... some of the greatest success stories in community crime prevention have little or nothing to do with the police."
It’s tough to take on police agencies and stare down incessant requests for a bigger portion of the community safety dollar. Politically, it is not typically rewarding for elected officials to be seen to want to cut back on policing. The public remains largely unaware that some of the greatest success stories in community crime prevention and safety that dot our national landscape have little or nothing to do with the police.
Statistics Canada has shown that the census data characteristics that correlate with high crime rates are poverty, family breakdown and lack of social cohesion in high density urban areas. Long term studies of repeat offenders conclude that the more negative life experiences that young people go through, the more likely they are to commit crime.
Research demonstrates that programs tackling these risk factors bring measurable reductions in the crime rate and the number of people reporting they’re victims of crime. That in turn frees up police to focus their attention and resources on the most serious forms of criminal activity.
The U.S. Department of Justice provides analyses of close to 400 types of crime prevention programs across the United States. Of these, 80 are identified as being particularly effective. The majority of these most effective community safety programs are not run by police, but by social services or schools and in some cases the health sector.
Some are services that mentor and provide outreach to youth at risk. Others focus on supporting parents having difficulty with their children in high risk areas. Still others teach youth valuable social skills.
A program developed in Ontario known as the Fourth R (for “relationships”) targets the reduction of sexual violence between teenagers in schools by teaching healthier, consensual and non-violent relationships. Like many other programs that are proven effective, it was tested in a random control trial like those health experts use for drugs. The schools that got the Fourth R treatment did a lot better on rates of sexual violence and healthy attitudes towards consensual relationships than those that did not.
Tough-on-crime advocates roll their eyes whenever looking at “the root causes of crime” is mentioned. But that’s exactly what has to be done to reduce crime most effectively. The main challenge involves moving beyond identifying problems to finding ways to link resources to work together and keep track of what is performing best.
One interesting example comes from Glasgow. The Scottish city analyzed why crime victims end up in hospital emergency rooms, then took action to tackle those causes. Alcohol-fuelled violence – in the streets and in domestic situations – was high on the list. Linking local medical professionals, substance abuse programs, shelters for abused partners and employment outreach proved very effective in reducing violence.
Health agencies, not police, often receive the best information about hidden violence – its locations, means and frequency – and so are well placed to mobilize police, counselling and employment outreach to tackle substance abuse and provide pathways out of abusive situations. An evaluation of a hospital emergency program in Cardiff , Wales, by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention demonstrated savings of about $80 for every $1 that the program costs.
Such programs from Ontario to Cardiff have all prevented crime by 25 per cent or more compared to traditional policing. They are also in line with public opinion, which has repeatedly been shown to prefer to control crime through investment in education and crime prevention rather than more police, lawyers and jails.
Ontario’s Community Safety and Corrections Services Minister, Yasir Naqvi, has embarked on an ambitious program to subject policing to what he says will be its most significant reinvention in 25 years. This will involve a year-long public consultation and legislative review that will lead to a new Police Services Act and funding regime for community safety across the province. Enhancing effective police-community partnerships to prevent crime is at the heart of this process – along with deepening the role and effectiveness of civilian governance bodies in holding the police to account toward garnering public confidence and support.
The success of crime prevention programs across the globe should send a message to Naqvi and other provinces eyeing ways to achieve value for money – and positive results for community safety – in overhauling their policing systems. But new legislation must be about comprehensive crime prevention, not just tacked on to a Police Act that did not work the first time around.
Irvin Waller is a professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa and author of Smarter Crime Control, which inspired this article. Michael Kempa is an associate professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa and is focused on the politics and economics of security. He sought the federal Liberal nomination in Scarborough Southwest in 2015.
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