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Montreal police spending keeps surging over budget. What are we paying for?

Another year, another hike in Montreal police spending.

In the past decade, the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) has consistently gone in the red. Back in 2015, it exceeded its original budget by $1 million. In 2022, its deficit ballooned to $80 million. Last year, the SPVM had a budget of $787 million, but ended up exceeding that by an estimated $42 million. 

This year, the police budget soars to $821 million — 11 per cent of the municipal budget — and the brass are already asking for more money.

Since the start of the pandemic, the city of Montreal has been increasing the police budget each year. But spending overruns — in the tens of millions of dollars — persist.

Rewind to the spring of 2020. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer, demonstrators took to the streets of Montreal and other cities across Canada, chanting “defund the police.” Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante said there was a “conversation” to be had about police funding, with “plenty of good ideas” around. 

Fast forward to four years later. Police critics and those calling for change say the city and its police force aren’t being held accountable for police spending, leaving little left over for cost-effective, community-centred alternatives.

As police budgets grow in big cities across the country, what are residents paying for? And is this money well spent?

Recruit to reduce costs: SPVM chief 

Facing a barrage of questions at city hall last November, Fady Dagher, Montreal’s police chief, broke down the hundreds of millions of dollars in the police department’s ballooning budget. The biggest slice — 95 per cent — is dedicated to salaries. 

Dagher said the city’s budget, paired with a new collective agreement increasing police salaries, made it “extremely difficult to control expenses.” 

“Believe me, I’m not proud to see this $42 million,” Dagher said, adding that the SPVM is working to avoid similar overruns in 2024. His solution is increasing recruitment to avoid “systemic and automatic overtime.”

According to the SPVM, the force’s absenteeism rate stands at 14 per cent.

In February, the chief announced that it had hired 300 new officers, a net gain of 91 recruits after retirements and resignations. By the end of the year, the SPVM plans to hire another 225.

But is the SPVM really understaffed? 

WATCH | Is Montreal police spending sustainable?:

montreal police spending keeps surging over budget what are we paying for

How Montreal police spend your money

1 day ago

Duration 2:14

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the city of Montreal has been raising the police budget each year. This year, the Montreal police budget soars to $821 million — 11 per cent of the municipal budget.

Although Montreal does have fewer officers today per capita than it did a decade ago, it still has more officers per capita than cities like Vancouver and Edmonton, which have higher rates of severe crime, according to data from Statistics Canada.

Massimiliano Mulone, associate professor in the department of criminology at the Université de Montréal, thinks Montreal’s police force is far from understaffed. 

However, the amount of overtime and the number of tasks they take on, from responding to calls involving mental health to homelessness, might cause fatigue and stress, he says, making them feel there is a need for an even larger police force.

Budget accountability 

Ted Rutland, professor at Concordia University in the department of geography, planning and environment, was one of those questioning Montreal’s chief of police at city hall.

“They basically spend whatever they want and we just write them a cheque at the end of the year,” said Rutland. “Whereas when other city services like public transit go over budget, they have to cut all kinds of costs to please the city.”

Tari Ajadi, assistant professor in Black politics at McGill University, says the police force can still spend with “reckless abandon,” despite the mayor previously signalling she was open to change.

But the political climate has shifted since then. Amid fears of a rise in violent crime during the last municipal election, both leading mayoral candidates made public security a major part of their platforms.

While the city announced cuts and a hiring freeze for other departments last fall, Mulone says taking the same approach for law enforcement would pit mayors and other politicians against police unions.

“From a politician’s point of view, there is not a lot of gain to say no to police demands because in the short term you probably will lose,” said Mulone. “When there is a shooting, it would be your fault because you didn’t hire enough police officers.”

But he says there are other ways to roll back spending, such as stopping the practice of having highly paid officers do some forms of administrative work or direct traffic.

With the new collective agreement, the annual salary for officers starts at $53,980, jumps to $61,848 after one year and climbs to $112,082 after six years of service.

Before the recent raises, 43 of the top 100 municipal earners — and six of the top 10 — were police officers.

The union that represents SPVM officers, the Montreal Police Brotherhood, did not respond to CBC’s request for an interview.

The city of Montreal declined CBC’s interview request, but in a written statement a city spokesperson said that the many demonstrations and extreme weather events last year contributed to the need for police overtime. The city also said it’s looking to reduce overtime in staffing police to provide security at events and direct traffic at intersections.

The SPVM also declined to grant CBC an interview, but a spokesperson told CBC in a statement that the SPVM needs a lot of personnel to carry out an extensive range of services to correspond to the population it serves, according to the province’s Police Act.

It also says the size of a police force should not be used as a measure of its efficiency or performance.

In 2021, a Quebec committee tasked with modernizing policing released a report that included recommendations for bringing down costs and increasing efficiency. It called for amending the Police Act to allow private security agencies to take on some police duties. It also recommended consolidating over half the province’s police forces. 

Police spending rising in Canada’s big cities

While municipalities differ in how they fund policing and what they ask their police to do, Canada’s other big cities have also boosted their police force budgets in recent years. 

In Toronto, amid an ongoing tug of war between city staff and the police chief, the budget has increased to $1.173 billion for 2024 — with nearly 87 per cent going to salaries and benefits.

In Vancouver, salaries make up 80 per cent of its $411 million budget. 

Unlike Canada’s other big cities, Montreal’s police department presents its budget breakdown on spending and revenue separately. The SPVM says most of that revenue comes from transfers and subsidies.

Agreeing with police critics in Montreal, Former Toronto mayor John Sewell says the reason why Canadian police departments get so much money is that municipalities are afraid of making an enemy out of them.

“They overspend because they know that they’re allowed to overspend. The politicians will never slap them on their wrists,” said Sewell, who is the co-ordinator of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition.

“When I was mayor, they went after me in a really, really big way …  that’s the fear that the politicians will have.”

A man stands behind a podium.
Montreal police chief Fady Dagher says the SPVM will continue to exceed its budget if it does not recruit more police officers. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Kent Roach, law professor at the University of Toronto, says police budgets in Canada have grown more than other public expenditures in the past three decades, with most of that money going to salaries, a cost he describes as “unsustainable.” 

Canada’s cities have a “dysfunctional governance structure,” he says, which limits how municipalities can hold their police departments to account — including how money is spent. He says that Montreal, unlike Toronto, at least has some level of accountability with elected council members overseeing its police force.

“We need rule of law accountability, but we also need dollar and cents political accountability,” he said.

With the average Canadian police officer making over $118,000 per year, Roach says municipalities need to come up with cost-saving and effective alternatives to boosting police budgets. He argues they should be using 10 per cent of their current budgets to find these solutions. 

More money could be saved by employing fewer generalist officers who receive expensive firearms training, he writes in Canadian Policing: Why and How It Must Change. He writes unarmed wardens can enforce traffic laws, along with speed cameras and photo radar. 

More cops, less crime?

Although an increased police presence isn’t cheap, Montreal’s police chief says the money has paid dividends when it comes to reducing violent crime. According to Dagher, a stronger police presence in 2023 resulted in 775 guns being taken off the streets and a 26 per cent reduction in gun violence compared to the previous year.

However, others dispute the idea that more police on the streets of Montreal means less crime.

“​​Montreal is one of the safest cities in the world, even at the height of the so-called gun violence outbreak. There has been a slight — but real — increase in crime in recent years, but it remains limited,” said Mulone, adding that the SPVM hasn’t pointed to scientific proof demonstrating its officers are responsible for decreases in gun violence in the city. 

Police like to take credit when crime rates drop but not when they rise, Mulone says, but either way, the result is the same: municipalities give their police departments more money. 

“The biggest asset of police in our contemporary world is the fact that everyone believes that police prevent crime … and because people believe that, it’s very difficult to say we are going to have less police,” said Mulone.

But a recent study led by researchers at the University of Toronto concludes that increasing police budgets doesn’t necessarily make Canadians safer. Published in December, the study examined the relationship between police funding and crime rates across 20 large municipalities, including Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and Winnipeg.

“We did not see a significant association between police spending and crime rates in Montreal,” said lead researcher Mélanie Seabrook.

The same holds true across the other cities in the study. 

Seabrook says police budget data is hard to access in Canada, making it difficult to understand the impact of police financing on public safety policy and make evidence-based decisions.

In writing this story, the SPVM denied several requests for basic financial data and told CBC to make access-to-information requests — a process that can take months to years.

The right person for the job

One of the common refrains of Black Lives Matter has been that community workers, not police officers, have the expertise to de-escalate situations involving vulnerable people in crisis — and can do so at a fraction of the price. 

When he was Longueuil police chief, Dagher said that up to 80 per cent of all 911 calls stem from social and mental health issues. 

Last November, Alain Vaillancourt, the city councillor and executive committee member responsible for public security, said the city of Montreal would like to see social workers take on some calls instead of police officers, but Quebec’s cuts to health and social services in recent years have left a “huge vacuum,” placing the burden on police who have a duty to answer all 911 calls.  

Mulone calls the situation a “vicious cycle.” Police are forced to respond to calls involving people on the margins because the social workers and mental health workers are not getting the necessary funding and have to fight for “scraps.”

“The SPVM gets a lot of money and because of that other public services have less,” he said.

But Montreal is slowly expanding one of its civilian-led programs that responds to conflicts on the city’s streets — unaccompanied by police officers.

Over the next five years, the city of Montreal and the Quebec government are each allocating $25 million to Équipe mobile de médiation et d’intervention sociale (ÉMMIS). The group is a 24/7 service but only covers four of Montreal’s 19 boroughs. However, the city plans to extend ÉMMIS across all boroughs by 2028.

“If police budgets are cut over the next decade — as all public spending will likely have to be cut — governments should be prepared to shift tasks from the police to non-policing agencies,” Roach writes in his book. “This is only fair to the police. It should allow them to focus on doing their necessary job in investigating serious crime.” 

This article is from from cbc.ca (CBC NEWS CANADA)

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