What is the point of the police? | City | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST
The HRP is asking for $95.264 million in the 2023 budget year, a little more than $6 million above the current budget. The Coast's Matt Stickland asks "what's it all for?"

What is the point of the police?

No, seriously, what are we getting for a Halifax police budget of $95 million?

In last Wednesday’s Board of Police Commissioners meeting, the Halifax Regional Police asked for more money. In a year where council is asking every city department to make cuts, the HRP has decided it needs more money. Police chief Dan Kinsella is asking the board for $95.264 million in the next budget year, which is a 6.8% increase or a little more than $6 million above the current budget, and includes five new hires.

Also at this meeting, the RCMP was supposed to present its budget documents. That presentation got deferred to the board’s Jan. 11 meeting, but the documents are included in the December meeting’s online agenda. They make for interesting reading. Of particular interest is the fifth appendix, a study with massive implications hidden behind a deceptively bland title: “A 30 year analysis of police service delivery and costing: ‘E’ Division research summary.”

This study was included, an RCMP spokesperson tells The Coast, in order to provide academic insight into police spending. Usually, when a police force attaches a study like this to a budget request, it’s a signal to politicians that policing is expensive and getting more expensive as the years roll on. Police use studies as evidence, from an independent third party that’s done real research, to justify more public money being given to police to counter the rising costs of doing their job. The sort of study attached to a big police budget ask usually provides arrest stats, points to crime going down, and argues that in order to maintain this welcome trend, more money is required because, hey, inflation, amirite?

But in an unexpected twist, this study doesn’t make the case that ever-increasing budgets are simply the price we have to pay for a safer society. The Coast interviewed one of the authors, Darryl Plecas, and he says the 2005 study does indeed track how expensive policing had gotten to that point, but that’s all the study does. It does *not* qualify that spending with any policing or social outcomes. Meaning the study did not determine if policing had gotten better or worse, just that it had gotten more expensive. Drastically so.

The study has two main conclusions. First, that “Police resources allocated on the basis of residential population are inadequate to the tasks police are expected to accomplish.” And second, “Changes in the legal and technical context in which police must operate have made the job more complex and therefore much more time consuming than in the past.” Those two sentences have a lot of information to unpack, which helps to explain why the debate around policing is so fraught.

The first conclusion has two main components. The first part of the sentence, “Police resources allocated on the basis of residential population are inadequate,” is easily explained. It’s the suburban Ponzi scheme rearing its head once again.

Even though police are not a piece of physical infrastructure like a road, the exact same analogy for street paving can be used for policing. The reason it’s cheaper to service urban homes is because they’re densely packed. Taking an example from a Dartmouth subdivision, Portland Estates Boulevard is about 1 kilometre long and has about 30 houses. The Coast office’s north end street, Maynard, has about the same number of homes within less than 200 meters. If a police officer is policing Portland Hills Boulevard, there are only 30 people directly contributing to the cost, and that officer also requires a car. The same officer can walk Maynard, where more people can share the lower, car-less expense. The “resources” per person in the “residential population” are different, sometimes “inadequate.”

And the second half of that sentence—“to the tasks police are expected to accomplish”—begs the question: What do we expect police to accomplish?

Do we expect police to prevent crime? They don’t. Now there is some evidence to suggest that having beat cops—walking beat cops—in neighbourhoods, whose main job is being part of the community, deters crime. But the work that police officer is doing to deter crime is community building. Not arrests, not investigations, not violence. Just being a human being who belongs to a place. But a walking beat patrol is not an effective form of policing suburban areas because, even with sidewalks, suburbs are not walkable communities. Good luck to a walking beat cop in a suburb who needs to poo, or who gets hungry.

Do we expect the police to punish crime? They don’t. In the US, police solve just 2% of their major cases. And we don’t really know if the Halifax Regional Police do a better job than their American counterparts. In September 2022, after a particularly onerous Board of Police Commissioners meeting, The Coast asked the provincial Department of Justice for the HRP’s conviction stats. The department was more than happy to help, but couldn’t easily. The data the province collects from the legal system can’t readily be used to evaluate police performance. This means millions of dollars go out the door to the police, but no government body knows if the police are actually any good at their jobs.

For this story The Coast asked for and was promised some of these numbers—two years worth in select categories, rather than 20 years of all crime—in time for this story to run, but in an email a provincial spokesperson wrote “Don’t have an ETA yet. Fact checking for accuracy.” The Coast appreciates the province's due diligence and will update this story when we get those numbers.

And when a civilian group takes on the work of dredging through poorly structured numbers for an issue it cares about, like sexual assault, police numbers are woeful. For every 20 sexual assault cases that police take on, only one is likely to end in a conviction. That’s a 5% solve rate, higher than the US 2% major crime rate, but still leaving 95% of sexual assaults unsolved and thus unpunished. And this is on top of the fact that one in five sexual assault cases have historically been dismissed by police without even a cursory investigation.

When the police arrest someone, do we expect that person to be guilty? Because they’re not: Approximately 75% of people in provincial jail are innocent. When cops arrest someone, we assume that they have done an investigation and that investigation produced evidence which will then be enough to secure a conviction and put a criminal in jail. But in reality, if someone doesn’t have money to afford bail, even though they are legally innocent (and maybe actually innocent, too), they are forced to wait for trial in jail. Which also means a lot of innocent people die in jail.

Before we continue, we’re going to take a sidebar into the slogan All Cops Are Bad (or bastards), ACAB for short. And it’s going to be a little personal, because I used to wear a uniform on the job every day as a member of Canada’s military. As someone who’s been credibly accused of perpetrating war crimes by Amnesty International, I think a lot about the personal responsibility individual uniformed members play in institutional failures.

Police officers may well be traumatized because people are being mean to them and saying ACAB, but my money’s on something else. Putting someone in jail is putting someone in a cage. A human being, in a cage. We have agreed as a society that this is bad; it’s so bad that we wrote in our constitution that we wouldn’t do it unless we absolutely needed to. We made sure, by way of that document, that we would not put innocent people in cages for no reason. That’s the contract we all agree to in society.

Now, if you had to put someone in a cage, knowing that they are 75% likely to be innocent and might die before they get out of that cage, what would it take for you to do it? That’s not a hypothetical; think about it.

Really think about it.

Because for the police, that answer is defined by the Criminal Code. Which means every day, a police officer knows they could put someone in jail for spitting, and that person could die there. Is spitting a capital offence to you?

Now the odds of that happening are small, but they are not zero. Every day, police officers look at their uniform, knowing the odds that they kill someone accidentally for spitting is not 0%, and they go to work anyway. Eventually, most police officers “win” the enforcement-of-shitty-rules lottery. And they all eventually “win” because they are ordered to do things like go out and punish people for being poor. But it’s not people yelling insults that hurts. It’s the self-reflection.

Is it possible to be a good person and a good father if my job could entail punishing the poor or enforcing a no-fly zone in Libya? How can I be a good father if Amnesty International is right and I’ve stolen امورة حبيبة بابا from eight other fathers? Cops are not stupid. They know what they’re doing. The trauma comes from realizing our enemies are right. When we realize—when we start to believe—that we may be the monsters our enemies think we are.

That’s what’s traumatizing your cops, chief Kinsella.

Let’s move on to the second conclusion the study reached: “Changes in the legal and technical context in which police must operate have made the job more complex and therefore much more time consuming than in the past.” This is surprisingly easy to explain.

The police used to do things illegally, and now they can’t. Prior to 1984, police didn’t always need a search warrant to go into your house; now they do, and getting a warrant takes time and money. That’s one change in the “legal” “context” where cops “must operate” that drives budgets up, and notice it has less to do with police protecting society than protecting society from police.

Another change: In 1990, Canada’s Supreme Court decided that the police did, in fact, need to tell accused people they had the right to a lawyer. This had a “substantial” impact on how long it took to close a case. And while the report outlines the difficulties of finding a lawyer in the middle of the night, it’s also true that it’s a lot harder to railroad someone into a false confession when they have a lawyer on their side.

But even with the extra costs and time associated with ensuring police don’t violate our Charter rights, they often do anyway. And how the police technically don’t but practically do violate our Charter rights can be found in the 1990 Supreme Court case R. v. Hebert.

Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms says we have the right not to incriminate ourselves of any crime we have been accused of in a pre-trial context. For those who only understand Canadian law through American pop culture, this is more or less the fifth amendment. In the Hebert case, the police asked the accused if he wanted to make a statement, and the accused refused. Then the cops decided to trick the accused into making a confession by putting a plainclothes cop in his holding cell. The cop then “engaged in conversation to ‘actively elicit’ information by an undercover police officer (e.g. cell plant).” And the court decided that “this would be a ‘police trick’ that would deprive the accused of his choice to not provide a statement.”

The modern version of this police trick requires the prop of a polygraph. Everyone knows polygraph test results can’t be evidence in a court of law. What people don’t know is that anything you say during that test is admissible, as it is technically a statement given to police. If the police don’t tell the confined person that little bit of information, that would almost certainly qualify as a “police trick that would deprive the accused of his choice not to provide a statement.” But since it’s not the exact same thing as R. v. Hebert, and this exact police trick has not been tested by the Supreme Court, it’s still technically not illegal.

But because our legal system is reactive instead of proactive, In order for this to become illegal, it has to get tested by the Supreme Court. But the Supreme Court can’t just choose a case to test; one has to come to it. But in order to make it to the Supreme Court, someone needs to appeal their conviction, and that conviction needs to have hinged on a statement coerced out of someone via polygraph. But typically the only people who will get caught by this police trick are people who can’t afford lawyers. And since they can’t afford lawyers for their trial, they likely also won’t be able to afford to appeal to the Supreme Court.

So that’s how a charter violation that is happening in Halifax right now is still happening and not illegal. The Board of Police Commissioners could stop this by voting down any police budget that has a line item for polygraphs. Yet so far, they have not.

And the commissioners won’t because polygraphs aren’t going anywhere. Chief Kinsella frequently calls polygraphs a “useful tool” in police investigations. Although he never answers this question publically, instead offering to explain in-camera to city councillors that the reason his police force uses them is that they’re cheap and fast.

The 30-year study has a table showing how many procedural steps are required in an investigation leading to an arrest. In 1975 there were nine steps in BC to arrest someone for drug trafficking; in 2005 there were 65 steps. That’s an increase in procedural steps of 722% over the 30 years of the study. A confession obtained via statement drastically cuts the number of procedural steps. And if there’s a prop available to police that drastically reduces their workload, why wouldn’t they use it? Their oversight body allows it, and to be honest, the Board of Police Commissioners doesn’t seem to care that Haligonians' Charter rights are being violated on its watch. And why wouldn’t the cops violate our charter rights to pad their stats in an attempt to secure more funding if it was allowed and tacitly encouraged by the Board of Police Commissioners?

What is the point of the police?
The Coast
Halifax Regional Police headquarters on Gottingen Street.

So to recap: Policing is expensive, it’s complex, it doesn’t prevent crime, and it traumatizes both police officers and the victims of our legal system. But at least it sometimes punishes people who do bad things, right?

Right?

Please?

Not really says Darryl Plecas, that study co-author. Plecas is a former speaker of the legislative assembly of British Columbia, and he points to the scandal he uncovered when he was the speaker. The very abridged version is that public servants were stealing and stealing a lot, and he tried to bring them to justice. However, after years of investigations, after millions were spent on the investigations and subsequent inquiry, the end result was 90 days of house arrest. For one guy. And even though many people took money via fraud, and even though two judges said this money should be paid back, it never was.

What was the point of the inquiry? What was the point of the investigation? Did BC get a good return on that investment?

Here in Nova Scotia, we’re having our own inquiry. Will that inquiry lead to better results? Unlikely. Mountie Robert Doyle—the guy who ridiculed his underlings by saying they wanted time off after Portapique for a “circle jerk”—has already been reassigned. He is now the director of recourse adjudications for promotional grievances. In his new role, he will be fielding complaints from members if their bosses act inappropriately. So if a cop on the Emergency Response Team thought their boss Robert Doyle didn’t like them and was holding them back from promotion (say, hypothetically, this was because their boss made fun of them for wanting a circle jerk when the members of the ERT were just trying to follow best practices to prevent being traumatized, because killing a mass murderer in a gas station parking lot can be pretty traumatic), they would now have to bring that complaint to Robert Doyle.

Nova Scotia’s inquiry into Portapique has been a colossal waste of money.

And the large public inquiries aren’t the weird, expensive outliers—they are just like everyday criminal cases, except blown up large enough and conducted in front of enough people that the problems are obvious. Out of sight in police departments and patrol cars, where individual officers are making decisions about what to do during that day’s shift, the complexity and expense of investigating pretty much any criminal case—from spitting to sexual assault to fraud—means that police often just don’t investigate cases that aren’t worth it.

The study found that “the cost associated with disclosure for even one large-scale fraud can easily reach into the tens of thousands of dollars and sap the entire operational budget of an investigative unit or department, limiting its capacity to conduct other investigations.” Plecas says what that translates to, in practice, is that some crimes go uninvestigated. He points to the money laundering in BC. Even though people were walking out of casinos with hockey bags of money laundered on camera, it didn’t make economic sense for police to investigate, so they let it slide.

Which brings us right back to the big question.

What is the point of police? The fundamental thing that makes being a police officer different than any other job, is that police have the state’s authority to strip our Charter rights and kill us. That’s the thing. And it colours everything cops do, from wellness checks and traffic stops to hostage situations; when we send armed police to solve a problem, we are also saying that problem needs violence as a potential solution.

And that’s just obviously not true about every problem. The solution to homelessness isn’t cages and guns. And since it’s not cages and guns, police should not be involved.

Plecas, for his part, says politicians should be starting to look at alternatives to police in roles where cops really aren’t necessary. Take investigations, for example; the police do investigations, but so do journalists. A radio reporter in Halifax will regularly do investigations for radio’s notoriously low annual salary of under $35,000, which is a lot less than the roughly 74% of Halifax Regional Police staff who make over $100,000 a year. Street navigators are much better at dealing with conflicts in unhoused populations; why not spend money on them instead of cops? Sobering centres are better alternatives to drunk tanks. Cameras are better at catching traffic violations. Social workers are better for domestic assault. Paramedics are better for physical injury.

It should be possible to have a world where society’s first responders are the ones appropriate for the jobs. After that, if an arrest needs to be made or if violence needs to be used, then the police should be called.

Our problems are being exacerbated by politicians' insistence on using police as a first responder to every problem in society, when in reality the whole police force should be more like the Emergency Response Team. The police should only show up if someone needs to be shot or caged. If anything else is required, there are better people to handle the situation. But since our politicians insist on using police so inefficiently, it has created a system where large crimes like fraud aren’t investigated because of the time and money required, but Charter rights are violated to save time and money.

It’s time to demand our politicians use their power to look after us. And to look at what that systemic neglect looks like. Take the example of Corey Rogers, to best case to exemplify the failures we accept from our police and politicians.

Rogers was killed in HRP custody on June 16, 2016, when the police put a spit hood on his head. Rogers threw up in the hood and died. Alone on the cold, hard holding cell floor, Rogers suffocated on his own vomit because two cops put a bag on a drunk guy’s head and left him to die.

Rogers was failed.

On that day, officers Justin Murphy and Donna Lee Paris won the shitty-rules-enforcement lottery. That day, they woke up, showered, put on their uniforms and ended up killing Corey Rogers for spitting. They were able to do so because their bosses gave them a potentially lethal tool to use in a situation that didn’t require it.

Murphy and Paris were failed.

It has taken the Board of Police Commissioners and the province seven years to get their shit together and finally start a pilot project of sobering centres. At any point before 2016, and at any point since 2016, spit hoods could have been banned by the Board of Police Commissioners, but so far, they have not. It’s just a matter of time before someone else is negligently killed with a spit hood.

On top of that, the provincial review board into the negligent killing of Rogers said it was concerning that police were only trained on how to use a spit hood after Rogers died. Ultimately the review board found that insulting Rogers before leaving him to die by negligence was “most unprofessional” but not worthy of punishment.

We are being failed.

We have been thoroughly and completely failed by our politicians and the systems that are supposed to keep us safe.

But most of all, we have been failed by the members of the Board of Police Commissioners, whose complacency towards their failure is “most unprofessional.”

The only way to ensure police do not accidentally kill another person with a spit hood is to ensure police do not have access to spit hoods. The only way to ensure police do not accidentally kill us with spit hoods or tasers or guns is for our politicians to make sure the police do not have tools of violence readily available. Restrict guns to only the Emergency Response Team. Make sure the only cops who can use violence understand that violence is their primary role. As for polygraphs: There is no reason to allow the police to keep a tool that can be used to violate our Charter rights. None.

Our politicians are unwilling to use their power to keep us safe. They let our charter rights be violated, they let us be punished for being poor and they let us be killed. All while spending more and more of our money in the process. It’s time to demand better.

On Wednesday, Jan. 11 at 12:30pm, go to City Hall and demand better.

About The Author

Matt Stickland

Matt spent 10 years in the Navy where he deployed to Libya with HMCS Charlottetown and then became a submariner until ‘retiring’ in 2018. In 2019 he completed his Bachelor of Journalism from the University of King’s College. Matt is an almost award winning opinion writer.

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