Philosopher, author and columnist Ayn Rand once wrote that you can avoid reality but not the consequences of avoiding reality. Recent events could certainly make her words a clarion call for both law enforcement and government.
Fiscal restraint has been a common theme over the past decade or so. Fears of run-away budgets have sent politicians at all levels scrambling to find savings. To spare their political lives at the next election, they ask department heads to help them manage through cutbacks. Reducing staff is the most expedient way to show fiscal restraint; the "natural attrition through retirements" mantra makes it more palatable for those shy of public blow-back.
The Town of Walkerton discovered in May 2000 the human costs of cutting corners on water works staff. The Ontario government, which also cut health inspectors, shared the blame by easing water inspection requirements to take pressure off the remaining staff. Four people died and more than a thousand fell ill after the town's water became contaminated. Many were permanently disabled.
The Canadian government last year decided cutting back meat inspectors could save a few million. Tainted meat soon began showing up across the country. After a few deaths and the realization voters were perishing, the government announced it was doubling the number of meat inspectors. When the headlines died down a year later the cutbacks slowly resumed. This time support staff got the axe. Currently it appears to be business as usual for layoffs, down-sizing or right-sizing.
Ottawa's downloading attitude is based on a belief in the intrinsic honesty of the private sector. This "trust" is buoyed by the lust for cutting enforcement personnel in favour of "self regulation" and with an eye on the bottom line. Faced with accusations of greater cutbacks, the government announced it had only reduced transport inspectors from 252 to 238, a five per cent cut.
The recent disaster in Lac Megantic, Quebec appears to be linked by many sources to a lack of federal transport regulators and a lack of oversight by inspectors. A runaway train vaporized the downtown and around 50 people are missing and feared dead.
No one acknowledged that transportation of crude oil by rail has increased from 500 carloads in 2009 to 130,000 this year, a 2,600 per cent increase in less than four years. Great for the rail industry. Great for government. Not so great for the folks from Lac Megantic.
Taking a clearer look at this we find that for some reason the work done by 21,000 federal government employees last year is unnecessary this year, according to the Public Service Alliance of Canada's list of actual and projected federal cuts for 2013. Among those unnecessary jobs are 149 federal police officers, 492 public health workers, 485 people from Transport Canada, 757 from Health Canada, 525 from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, 698 from Fisheries and Oceans, and 1,049 from correctional services (so much for getting tough on crime). In addition to this we have 566 people cut from Citizenship & Immigration and Canada Border Services Agency will have 1,284 fewer people to watch for terrorists.
In contrast to this the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying of Canada will lose only two staff.
If you still feel safe sleeping at night then you haven't been paying attention. These numbers are only federal and don't include provincial and municipal governments, where too many politicians see enforcement as the runt in the budget litter. Agencies report lower crime and municipal and provincial politicians take this as a cue to reduce their budgets.
How these crime figures are obtained is not considered and there's no thought that perhaps maintaining current levels is necessary to sustain them. Few politicians are told that cops who do not have to chase down active criminals can now be freed up to finally get into real prevention activities that will guarantee a safer future and community.
One other factor which must be considered is the cost of over burdening a workforce. Post traumatic stress disorder costs police agencies dearly. Simply put, if you have a heavy workload you must ensure proper staffing to spread the stress over as large a number as possible. Humans are built to handle stress but everyone has their limit and that's when a properly functioning management must react to move in fresh replacements.
Advising the public that your agency can do more with less is just wrong. Avoiding this reality does not let you avoid increased compensation, sick benefits, reduced productivity, additional public complaints and more labour relations grievances with their related legal costs.
Recognizing realities and responding appropriately to them is everyone's responsibility. It can be a simple matter of getting the message to politicians that they can pay now or pay later, but pay they (we) must – and paying later may be far more costly. Cut back on pencils and perks, not people.