OTTAWA — The Conservative government is examining the “opportunities and challenges” involved in privatizing some policing services in Canada.
Public Safety officials are commissioning a study to examine the growing industry of private policing in Canada and abroad, and to outline the role private security firms could play in traditional public policing roles. The study appears to be primarily motivated by the cost of and increased pressure on public forces, despite historically low crime rates.
“Policing has become something new, not only in Canada but in all western democratic nations,” states Public Safety’s notice for the study.
“Increasingly, we have become a security-conscious society that has placed a demand on our publicly funded agencies, (which they are) increasingly unable to meet.”
Private security is loosely defined. It can range from mall cops to private eyes to highly specialized cybersecurity experts – but the market is growing, and employees are typically paid less than police officers.
The department notes that “many urban areas” have not only “two-tiered” but “multi-level” policing, with private employees or volunteers taking on traditional police roles. Private industry now “touches on almost every facet of policing,” according to the department.
The phenomenon is most clearly evident on the two ends of the policing spectrum, according to Benoît Dupont with the Université de Montréal: the more mundane cop work, like issuing tickets, and the bleeding edge of crime, such as cybercrime. It may make more sense for private contractors to handle some of these aspects, Dupont said, rather than a higher-paid sworn officer.
“You would find private security at both ends of that spectrum,” Dupont said in an interview. “And (that) raises the question if the current police field is too general for the current structure of crime in Canada, which is more concentrated on both … large volumes of petty crimes and also large volumes of very sophisticated online crime.”
The push to include private security in the policing world has many experts concerned about accountability in the justice system. Unlike public police, which have at least some degree of political and civilian oversight, private contractors exist in a very different legal category.
For that reason, Curt Griffiths, the co-ordinator of police studies at Simon Fraser University, said governments need to move very cautiously when expanding private security’s role in policing.
“We’ve seen a big push in Canada over the last 10 years to hold the public police more accountable and to make sure their governance structure is in place,” Griffiths said.
“The question in terms of these private security companies is how are they going to become accountable? … they’re going to start being involved in activities other than just driving around … a plant.”
Griffiths said that while the public police system is set up to serve a particular part of the public good, private firms are motivated to make money. This leads Griffiths to another concern – “policing for profit.
“These companies are basically in it to make money … They’re going to want to cherry-pick (neighbourhoods),” said Griffiths.
Canada’s police-reported crime rate hit a 44-year low in 2013, with just over 1.8 million criminal offences reported nationwide. The crime rate has continued a downward trend since peaking in the early 1990s, according to StatsCan.
At the same time, the statistics agency shows total expenditures on policing in Canada have increased from $3.77 billion in 1986 to $13.52 billion in 2013. In constant dollars, spending has almost doubled over that time period.
Some low-level police work, such as issuing tickets, is now handled by private firms instead of regular officers. Tara Walton/Toronto Star file photo
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