THUNDER BAY — Police and municipal leaders say they see no prospect of reining in Thunder Bay’s ballooning policing costs in the foreseeable future, short of expanded funding from provincial or federal governments.
While leaders in both organizations have said investments should be shifted to social services to better address mental health and addictions crises, some now suggest that shift must take place over the course of decades, not years.
Thunder Bay’s city council signalled its support for a proposed increase of over seven per cent, or nearly $4 million, in police costs at a meeting on Wednesday.
Municipal spending on police rose more than twice as quickly as for other city-funded departments and agencies under the previous city council, now making up roughly a quarter of the budget.
Some of those increased costs were tied to implementing recommendations from the 2018 Sinclair report, though the administrator appointed to oversee the police services board has also found a "very concerning failure" to advance some of its key recommendations.
In a presentation to city council, acting police chief Dan Taddeo painted a grim picture of the challenges the force addresses.
Citing 2021 Statistics Canada numbers, Taddeo told council the city ranks first in Canada on its Violent Crime Severity Index and seventh for the overall Crime Severity Index, with both more than double the provincial average.
The city also has among the highest rates of family violence in the country, Taddeo said, citing a 2019 Statistics Canada profile.
The police report also pointed to rates of opioid-related deaths about four times the provincial average, and high rates of impaired driving.
Mental health issues and intoxication account for a large fraction of calls for service, with mental health calls increasing several-fold over the past decade.
Taddeo argued the city has underfunded police, saying its per capita spending was lower than the national average from 2012 to 2019, and is still barely above that average.
Taking into account suggestions Thunder Bay’s Indigenous population is severely undercounted, he said, police costs would be well below average.
“Resources have not kept pace with realities and the needs of the community, primarily the continued threat to public safety and community well-being caused by the dramatic increase in substance dependency and its social impact within the city and the region,” he said.
While some say those challenges require increased social and health supports, not more police, the force says police spending can’t be ramped down anytime soon.
“The contraction of policing resources can only occur when the much-needed social services-based solutions have been properly funded and have been given time to have a quantifiable impact on the roots of crime and disorder,” the force states in a budget submission. “For the foreseeable future, investments in policing needs to continue.”
Coun. Kristen Oliver, a former chair of the police services board, agreed, saying the city is pushing the province to properly fund social and health services, but there’s no “quick fix.”
“Even if all the stars aligned tomorrow and a crisis centre was built, and we had people getting the services they need … we’re still a generation out before we’re going to see any significant improvements in quality of life for many people in our community.”
Coun. Albert Aiello successfully moved for a report from city staff outlining options “to obtain additional provincial and/or federal funding and further advocacy options to better support Thunder Bay Police” before approving the police budget.
“My concern is that the significant increases year after year are draining household budgets and hitting the average home owner hard. It is unsustainable,” he stated, while noting he supports the proposed budget.
City manager Norm Gale noted council can reject a proposed police budget.
“Council does have options when they receive a budget from [police], and I want to make sure they’re aware,” he said.
Councillors expressed no interest in pursuing that option, however, with some asking if the expansion should actually be larger.
“I will not support an option to reduce the police budget at all,” said Coun. Shelby Ch’ng.
According to Michael Kempa, a professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa who studies the relationship between police and governments, municipalities are limited when it comes to policing costs.
“The city basically has a nuclear option of saying, we reject wholesale your budget,” he said. “They cannot go line-by-line and say, we want you to change [this] — it’s just accept or reject.”
If council rejects the budget, the police service can appeal that decision to the Ontario Civilian Police Commission (OCPC).
“The OCPC usually sides with the police,” said Kempa. “So you’re rolling the dice, and it’s a little bit stacked against you as a municipality. You might actually find the OCPC will come back with a budget that’s even higher … that’s happened.”
Municipalities can better exert influence over policing through their representatives on the police services board, he suggests.
The city appoints three of the police board’s five members, but one of those seats remains vacant, and the board currently has no decision-making power after the OCPC appointed administrator Malcolm Mercer, citing internal dysfunction.
That illustrates “the dangers and liabilities of having a board that is completely dysfunctional,” Kempa said.
“If you don’t have a functional board, you’re more or less throwing up a police budget that may or may not be aligned with where the city is intending to go.”
In an interview Wednesday, Mercer said he’s made a point of consulting remaining members of the police board before making decisions.
He said those conversations, and discussions with Taddeo, left him convinced of the need for the proposed increases.
“There have been many years where … the police service has tried to reduce its ask for further funds, and it’s been in the end I think counter-productive,” he said.
“Because what you have is officers who are under-resourced, there are too few of them, and that ends up with a number of counter-productive results — one of which is the overtime cost is very high, and that’s not a financially sustainable model.”
The 2023 police budget includes $2 million in budgeted overtime, and the force has typically exceeded its budget on overtime and WSIB.
“I think the effect on the officers themselves is [also] something to pay serious attention to,” Mercer added. “We have approaching one in 10 members of the service who are on disability for psychological or psychiatric reasons.”
Thunder Bay Police Association president Colin Woods agrees.
“It was kind of refreshing to see Acting Chief Taddeo put this forward … because over the last few years, it seemed there wasn’t really a push from the service to propose an increase,” he said.
“We were asking the administration at the time, are you asking for an increase, are you asking for more money for officers — and it was kind of a no, we’re not going to do that at this time.”
He sees no path to reducing police spending in the medium turn.
“The short answer is no, I don’t know how those costs can be reined in,” he said. “In a perfect world, there wouldn’t be any crime, there wouldn’t be any need for police officers to deal with these issues, but we all know that’s not the reality.”
“The only way that’s going to get reduced over time is just if crime diminishes, if other social issues get dealt with, then you probably won’t need as many police officers. But we need the police now.”