Governments, including municipalities, have been desperately searching for ways to balance their budgets for many years. "We have to do more with less," we sometimes hear, although this is often no more than an empty slogan. But there are areas where it really is possible to do more with less. Or at least, to do more with a stable or slowly growing budget.
An example: public safety services. Despite a falling crime rate, policing costs have nearly doubled in Canada over the past 25 years. Including salary, social benefits and payroll taxes, total compensation for a police officer in Montreal's police department (the SPVM) amounts to an average of nearly $120,000 a year, versus around $40,000 for a security agent in Quebec.
In this context, it makes absolutely no sense to soak up police officers' time with tasks that should not logically be included in their job descriptions. Indeed, around 40 per cent of patrol officers' time is devoted to administrative duties, according to a study carried out in British Columbia — mainly the writing of reports. Why not refocus the work of police officers on their essential duties, and employ other categories of personnel for auxiliary or administrative tasks?
Some municipalities are already doing this. Certain police forces — in Lévis, Quebec, for instance — now call upon private agents for criminal background checks for regular citizens, like those who want to adopt a child or obtain a visa for a trip abroad. But city governments could go much further in this direction, and save even more, all without compromising the safety of people or eliminating existing jobs for police officers.
Let's take a concrete example to illustrate my point: Imagine a roadblock in Montreal aiming to nab impaired drivers. Such an operation would normally require eight police officers, according to standard procedures. If auxiliary duties were outsourced to the private sector, and six of the eight participants were security agents, the cost would be reduced from $4,994 to $2,332, a saving of over 50 per cent. Security agents would administer the test (i.e., the "balloon"), and only drivers who fail it would be referred to the two police officers on site, who would then proceed to the arrest of the impaired driver, or to any other police intervention required under the circumstances.
This example is not pulled from science fiction. This is how things are done in many European countries. In short, this all happens in a unionized context in which the police union does not systematically obstruct this kind of solution.
In the longer term, the gross savings from these kinds of operations could be transformed into net savings for taxpayers by limiting the number of new police officers hired.
Other examples? Canadian cities could draw inspiration from London, England, where a police officer is sent to the site of a burglary only if the burglars might still be present. Otherwise, a security agent is dispatched to carry out tasks that are not essential police functions, namely to fill out the required reports with the victimized property owners.
In Lincolnshire, England, a private security company took over practically all auxiliary activities. It has been managing the county's police stations since 2012 and has surpassed all savings targets, while the crime rate has fallen by 14 per cent. In short, it is entirely possible to save money all while improving the quality and the impact of public safety services.
These are examples of "best practices" in the field of public safety, applied in countries that had the good sense to implement such an approach. And, to repeat: Such reforms do not pose any increased public safety risk. Nor is it a question of replacing the work of police officers, but rather of complementing it — while leaving them more time for the kinds of duties that correspond better to their essential functions, which are also more satisfying psychologically. Indeed, almost no one who becomes a police officer does it in order to become a pencil pusher, but instead does so in order to serve, and to fight crime.
Another example: Why on earth must a police officer, who is paid in part for his elevated social psychological and physical skills, be immobilized to review photo radar images in order to confirm speed limit infractions? A properly trained civilian can perform this task at lower cost.
Undoubtedly, unions here would oppose this kind of reform. But there would surely be a way, through attrition among others, to implement these changes gradually while respecting the contractual principle of job security.
In sum, to do more — or at least, as much — with less.
Michel Kelly-Gagnon is President and CEO of the Montreal Economic Institute. The views reflected in this column are his own.