(This column was published in the North Shore News on Mar. 27, 2002)

 

Poor police must make do

 By Leo Knight

Last week I touched on police budgeting and how the tough decisions might have affected the missing women case now capturing headlines across the country and around the world.

 

Before the NDP mercifully vacated the government offices in Victoria, they cut $2.2 million from the budget of the Justice Institute of B.C. (JIBC), the vehicle used for training municipal police officers as well as sheriffs, ambulance personnel, firefighters and corrections officers.

 

A little political manoeuvering later and a long-awaited change in government, and the final number cut to the JIBC is $700,000. Not as bad, but still substantial.

 

It now seems that the cuts are being passed down to the individual police departments, who, predictably, are looking at how they can find extra dollars in their stretched budgets.

 

As it is with anything that a senior government tries to off-load on a subordinate entity, the costs are inevitably passed down and down again, until ultimately it reaches the beleaguered taxpayer or consumer, as the case may be.

 

So police departments now have to consider requiring recruits to pay their own freight to get themselves through the academy. Now, on the surface of things that might seem like a reasonable idea. In fact, in general terms, I would support the concept.

 

But what about the harsh reality that today's police departments are having difficulty attracting enough quality applicants to meet their current attrition rates? If we begin asking them to pay for themselves, there is no doubt that the quality of applicant is going to change. Will that change be good or bad?

 

Well, one view is that only truly motivated people will go through the process. The other side of the coin is that the less well-heeled might be relegated to the sidelines in a game they can't afford to play.

 

So what happens then?

 

Do the police agencies lower their standards just to meet the required numbers? Or perhaps, are the standards already unreasonably high?

 

There is a suggestion to find alternate methods of funding training. Such as having the department pay up front and then deduct the cost through payroll deduction. This of course means the various police departments still have to come up with the money out of today's budgets in the hopes of some recovery tomorrow.

 

There is also the possibility of getting into the student loan programs of the federal and provincial governments.

 

A veteran Vancouver municipal police officer, looking at the world through the window of retirement, suggested last week to me, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that the Hells Angels might even get into the privately funded student loan business. After all, they have the liquid cash from their varied illicit ventures and they are always looking for ways to have sources in the police. It might even behoove them to buy a few spots for recruits and plant their own "sleeper" agents, so to speak.

 

But what are the options for municipal police forces?

 

Manpower is already tight and individual departments can ill afford to detach enough veteran officers to train new recruits. That is why the JIBC model worked, lo these many years. It was infinitely more efficient to share resources for all the affected departments.

 

The Canadian Association of Police Chiefs did a human resource study last year. They concluded that any and all impediments to recruiting must be lifted to ensure Canada's police forces attract the highest calibre of applicants. They included charging fees for training of new recruits as a "barrier."

 

The RCMP have been involved in much the same game for most of the past decade. In 1975, when I went through the RCMP academy, recruits were hired on as police officers and sent to Regina for training. As employees, we received paycheques and there were no associated costs to the recruit. The training process was also a probation period per se. All aspects of training had to be successfully completed or you were fired.

 

Following the federal budget cuts which marked the first Chretien government, the RCMP academy was closed for an extended period of time as a money-saving move. The force has yet to recover fully from the staffing problems created by that particular piece of political brilliance.

 

Now, with diminished budgets, the RCMP no longer pays a wage to recruits. Instead, they get a small allowance. The money is so small it couldn't cover the mortgage on a doghouse. Has the force suffered in its recruiting? Almost certainly.

 

How many married men or women with mortgages could afford to take six months or more off work to go through RCMP training? What about those who have already started a family? Ostensibly, the Mounties are looking for people with post-secondary degrees and some life experience as recruits. Yet, the current situation they are forced into, automatically excludes a great many otherwise exceptional people.

 

And it becomes worse. There is now a move afoot to push the RCMP to have recruits pay for their training. The same thing being discussed in B.C.'s municipal police forces because of the funding cuts to the JIBC.

 

The police are being criticized at every angle and level. Damned if they do and damned if they don't. It's difficult for me to understand the sorts of budget cuts, which can only serve to further narrow the field of police recruits. Especially when we look at the absolute waste of money by the federal Liberals in never-ending line of patronage and pork barreling.

 

The police are the first and last line of defence for the citizenry. Should we not expect our "finest" to be just that?

 

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