‘What’s going on is not sustainable’: Police officers in Canada at 10-year low

A police officer keeps an eye on tourists ahead of the G7 sumit in Quebec City, Que., June 6, 2018. Lars Hagberg /AFP/Getty Images

The number of police officers in Canada hit a 10-year low in 2018, according to Statistics Canada, and that number dwindles further when police presence is examined per capita.

In 2018, there were 68,562 officers working in the country, 463 less than the year before, according to the Oct. 3 report.

That works out to 185 officers for every 100,000 people — the lowest rate since 2001.

It comes as no surprise to Tom Stamatakis, president of the Canadian Police Association, who says Canada hasn’t had enough officers for a long time.

“Because of that, there’s a huge impact,” he said.

“We’re seeing it in a number of different ways, including demand on services and reallocation of resources. Take Toronto, for example: they’re having this shooting epidemic and they’re having to reallocate resources from other areas to manage that, which means that those areas the resources have come from are suffering.”

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Most of Canada’s police officers are based in Ontario (25,327), Quebec (15,884) and British Columbia (9,246), but numbers generally sunk across most provinces and territories last year.

The largest drops were reported in Saskatchewan, Ontario and Prince Edward Island. Nova Scotia, British Columbia and the Northwest territories all reported small increases.

By city, it was Calgary and Toronto that saw the biggest drop, with 11 per cent and eight per cent, respectively. Richmond and Kelowna, B.C., saw gains, at 10 per cent and nine per cent, respectively.

These changes came as Canada’s crime rate increased for the fourth straight year.

“The rate of police-reported crime is almost half what it was three decades ago,” a spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale’s office told Global News.

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READ MORE: Canada’s crime rate rose in 2018 but country still safer than a decade ago — StatCan

He said the number of police officers Canada needs is “not straightforward.”

“That said, we are deeply concerned whenever a portion of Canadians don’t feel that they’re safe,” the spokesperson added.

So why are numbers dwindling? Stamatakis said there are a number of factors that could be at play.

There are inevitably officers who decide to leave the industry, he said, but people might also be deterred from getting into policing because of workplace culture.

Long hours, understaffing, overtime and, as of recently, a number of “very public suicides” also have an impact on recruitment, he said.

“It’s not really attractive when what we’re saying is: ‘Hey, come and be a police officer. We don’t have enough resources, we’re in a crisis in terms of mental health and wellness, and you can make the same or more money if you go into other sectors,’” he said.

Police jurisdictions across Canada are grappling with mental health issues among officers. An Ottawa police officer died by suicide just last month.

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After the suicides of nine officers in 2018, Ontario’s chief coroner asked a panel to prepare recommendations on how to address the growing health crisis.

Adequate, suitable staffing and access to better resources were among the 14 recommendations.

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Stamatakis said a shrinking force inevitably has a trickle-down effect.

“I don’t think you can say on the one hand that we’re worried about police officers and their wellness and, on the other hand, not properly resource police services across the country,” he said.

“You want the people responding to be the most capable of providing the kind of assistance that we should be providing.”

Women and minorities

Last year saw another jump for the number of women in policing. According to the report, 196 women joined Canada’s police forces in 2018.

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Women in policing “continued its upward trend,” StatCan said, with more constable and senior positions being held by women.

The statistics agency first started tracking the number of female police officers in 1986. At that time, they made up for four per cent of the total number of officers. As of 2018, women make up for 22 per cent of all police officers.

READ MORE: Toronto police service graduates 129 new recruits, still not enough says union president

But there’s still work to be done on representation in policing.

The number of officers who belong to a visible minority hovered around the same mark it has in past years, with eight per cent of all officers and 12 per cent of recruits. In 2016, that number was 8.4 per cent.

Four per cent of police officers identified as Indigenous.

Last month, in a first-ever move for Canada, the Ontario Human Rights Commission recommended that it be mandatory to collect race-based data on police interactions. The same report found that a black person in Toronto was nearly 20 times more likely than a white person to be shot and killed by police.

While the same factors — hours, staffing and mental health — could also be a deterrent for minorities to become police officers, Stamatakis acknowledges that racial tensions and a historic lack of diversity don’t help.

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“It wasn’t that long ago that we’re a pretty homogenous group. We were basically just white males,” he said.

“That needs to change. I think we realize that as an industry, as a sector, we know we need our organizations to reflect the communities we police.”

He did, however, point to staffing limits as a possible factor in a lack of diversity as well.

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The number of police officers in Canada over the age of 50 is increasing, according to the StatCan report. Officers in this age bracket account for 18 per cent of police in 2018, compared to 15 per cent in 2012.

But, as of last year, only 11 per cent of officers in Canada were eligible to retire with full pensions.

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Police expenses increased by three per cent last year to $15.1 billion. Of that, $12.4 billion is for salaries and benefits for officers.

“It’s a confounding situation,” he said.

“We don’t have people leaving because they’re not at the end of their careers. At the same time, we’re not hiring new people. And, simultaneously, we’ve created an environment that doesn’t make our profession everybody’s first choice.”

He added, simply: “There’s always room for improvement.”

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