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RESEARCH REVIEW: Economics and Change in Policing


May 19, 2015
By Canadian Police College

Because of the current global, political, and economic crisis and the resulting restructuring of public sector institutions like the police, there are challenges for public policing and public safety.
We are currently in a time period of great political and economic transition, one in which our policing philosophies, institutions, and practices are not only increasingly expensive, but are also not suited to current and future policing needs.

Policing change comes because shifts in economics create new societal pressures that open up new opportunities for crime and present different challenges.

How we think markets should serve us, how we think markets tend to behave, and what we feel the proper relationships between governments and markets ought to be, all greatly impact our views and beliefs about what policing and police is and could be.

Critically, the belief that “policing” is limited to maintaining an unremitting watch over collective goings-on and enforcing the law in mostly public space is deeply dependent on the idea that there is a sharp divide to be drawn between the public and private spheres.

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Whenever governments think they have a larger role in acting in the private sphere to regulate and shape markets, their concept and aims for “policing” tend to become more ambitious to include all manner of community safety and social regulation issues; and whenever governments have more faith in the power of the private sphere to take care of itself, their dominant ways of thinking about policing become narrower to focus on strict law enforcement.

Also, when markets move, they enable and constrain government action and prompt policing adaptation. Poor market performance, for example, diminishes the tax base and thus diminishes government resources.

In this case, governments begin to run deficits and must naturally begin to search for more efficiency in all its public services, including policing.

There are five important indicators that suggest that the current system for policing is in need of adjustment:

  1. Spending on policing has been mushrooming in Canada and across the Western democracies for over two decades. Total spending on policing in Canada was over 12.6 billion in 2010 — more than double its 1997 level. This spending currently takes up to 50% of municipal government budgets across the country. In 2011, the number of police officers reached 69,500 representing seven consecutive years of growth and the highest police officer strength since 1981;

  2. Studies show that police morale and officer health is in decline. These are sure signs of an organization that is being pulled in too many directions and being asked to do too many things that are out of alignment with its core functions, authorities, and capacities;

  3. Public perceptions of public police fairness and impartiality have been slipping of late – reaching relative low points in their cyclical levels of support over the past few decades. It is clear that the public have very high expectations for the police organization, which may be unrealistic in scope;

  4. Partly a result of, and partly driving, public appetites for greater amounts of security, the private security industry has been growing across Canada at an astronomical rate since the late 1970s – picking up renewed vigor since the terrorist outrages of 9/11. Whatever else is happening, it is clear that corporations and the public do not feel that the public police on their own are capable of meeting their full range of security needs, in all forms of collective space;

  5. Despite declines in overall recorded crime rates, crime is known to be expanding in the realms of cyberspace and finance and emergent forms of technology are being exploited by the criminal element – forcing policing and security agencies to catch up.

The new political and economic consensus is that the state and big governments are back in style – while not necessarily doing the direct rowing of providing all public services, then certainly by doing more of the steering through regulating the contribution of other agencies.

The consensus of this new shift is that modern governance of public institutions will need a great deal of agility – more flexibly designed organizational and management structures — so that they can respond quickly to the directives of skilled, outward looking leadership who are scanning the horizon for shifting challenges and conditions.

Centralized bureaucracies – such as the public police – are going to have to rethink the skills they look for in their leaders, and reform their pay, promotions, and other incentive structures to reward ingenuity, innovation and flexibility, rather than dogged adherence to old systems or longevity of service.

It is clear from the language of reform that most police professionals and members of government want the state to coordinate the many agile institutions that contribute to public safety -and influence the entire “system for policing” – in service of the public good.

The difficulty we face is that most of our laws, institutions, and practices were designed for a previously compartmentalized world in which policing was limited to a single, bureaucratic agency that directly enforced rules and maintained disciplinary surveillance only in public space. A major rework of the legal framework for policing is therefore in order, and should be guided by the practical lessons of what is seen to be working in partnership policing on the ground.

Whatever the challenges to modern public policing presented by the emerging new economy, it would seem they will not be solved as before through greater public expenditure.

The proliferation of new threats to security and of the police resources to deal with issues of terrorism, asylum and illegal migration, identity theft and fraud, also pose a problem.

Many of these new policing challenges are obviously associated with structural shifts in the global economy and the availability of new institutional technologies that increase global flows of people, information, goods, and virtual services. One of the principal concerns of state governments, and, by extension the police, has been to manage increasingly mobile virtual and real population and communication flows.

There is simply no way that an institution set up to handle the security challenges of the 19th century industrial economy can continue to meet all of the security demands of a wildly changing, diversified modern global economy.

Identifying what the police do best – and sticking to those core functions on the basis of evidence – will therefore be essential.

Our main challenge, therefore, is not simply to find better cost efficiency but to find ways to achieve public safety and well-being in a coordinated, blended fashion across the multiple policing agencies that make a contribution to this broader policing enterprise.

Synergistic, broad policing programs — such as Saskatchewan’s community safety partnerships and others that are being chronicled by Public Safety Canada — that are demonstrated to be working well on the basis of actual empirical evaluation deserve our rigorous review.

Since most of our options for the future of community safety will involve the police working in some degree of partnership with a wide range of private and civil agencies, we will need to be sure that our accountability mechanisms can hold all the agencies mobilized in the public name to account.

History has shown that policing reform has been forced and enabled by major economic restructuring.

Reinventing a centuries-old, multi- agency institutional model for policing is a difficult endeavor, one that requires skilled leadership to build upon demonstrated experimentation and best practice.
What we are looking for are new ways of bringing together legal, economic, and social governance to promote community safety. We need a new answer to the fundamental question of how best government, police services, and civilian oversight bodies can deploy power in both the public and private spheres to steer processes of community safety in the public interest.


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