In both Canada and the United States, large numbers of activists have campaigned fervently this year – especially over the past summer – to defund the police. This, as most people recognize, is complete foolishness. Clearly, we need police to subdue violent attackers, stop robberies, prevent terrorists from carrying out their plots, and so on.
Nevertheless, there is room to reduce police budgets and save taxpayer money without endangering the public. The reality is that the private sector is capable of taking over a great many tasks currently carried out by police officers. Many administrative and other tasks done by the police do not actually require intensive police skills and could be entrusted to civilians.
For example, while police officers must be in excellent physical condition and have strong social or psychological skills to catch violent criminals and defuse conflicts, these attributes are not so useful in reviewing photo radar images to hand out traffic tickets. There is no need, then, to pay highly skilled police officers to perform this task. The work could be outsourced to a private company and done by civilians at a lower cost to taxpayers.
There are many other tasks that could also be handed from police officers to lower-skilled, less expensive civilian workers. Indeed, while police officers must have a certain level of intelligence, social skills, and physical fitness, only a small percentage of tasks done by police officers (around 10%, according to a 1987 U.S. study) require a high level of all three traits.
Other data also confirm that a great deal of work done by police officers could instead be performed by lower-skilled civilians. For example, according to a 2005 report by researchers in British Columbia, administrative duties and writing reports consume about 40% of a police officer’s time on the job. Most of these administrative tasks require a certain level of intelligence, but not physical fitness.
And even when they are not writing reports, lots of police work does not require intensive police skills. The New York Times reported earlier this year, based on data from three separate police departments, that only about 4% of a police officer’s typical shift involves responding to serious violent crimes, compared to about 50% for non-criminal and traffic-related calls.
Transferring some tasks away from the police force could yield significant savings for taxpayers. Take for example a roadblock operation to catch impaired drivers. Economists with the Montreal Economic Institute (MEI) estimated in 2015 that using eight police officers, this sort of operation, lasting about eight-and-a-half hours, would cost taxpayers around $6,100 in Toronto or $5,000 in Montreal.
But if instead of eight police officers the operation used only two police officers, in order to impound vehicles or arrest drivers if necessary, and subcontracted the other six positions to private sector civilians, who could perform the auxiliary tasks like installing signage and filling out the paperwork, then the cost could fall by 50% or more.
It does not make sense, especially now with public finances under pressure, to keep asking police to do things that can be done for less money by private sector civilians. Completely defunding the police makes no sense, but delegating auxiliary tasks currently performed by police to private security agencies is a perfectly sensible way to save taxpayer money.
Matthew Lau is a fellow at the MEI, Gaël Campan is Senior Economist at the MEI. The views reflected in this op-ed are their own.