Increasing police budgets doesn’t necessarily reduce crime rates in Canada, according to a study led by a University of Toronto team.
The research found “no consistent associations” between police funding and crime rates across 20 large municipalities, including Hamilton, Vancouver, Toronto, Winnipeg and Montreal.
“Our results point to this more complicated relationship [between police and crime rates] and other factors at play,” lead author Mélanie Seabrook told CBC Hamilton on Wednesday.
The study, published in the peer-reviewed academic journal Canadian Public Policy in December, notes there has been little research examining police funding. The researchers say this is the first study of its kind in Canada.
The findings come at a time when police services in many municipalities are working to get increases in their budgets, which have consistently grown over the years.
Christopher Schneider is a sociology professor at Manitoba’s Brandon University who researches policing and technology and wasn’t part of the U of T study. He said the research “has the potential to be groundbreaking” and hopes it will spur public conversations about how to make communities safer.
Seabrook said the key takeaway for decision-makers and the public is to take community needs and priorities more into consideration when setting budgets.
‘They don’t seem to be related’
The study, “Police funding and crime rates in 20 of Canada’s largest municipalities: A longitudinal study,” examined how much money some cities have spent on policing. It then compared that spending to the crime rates between 2010 and 2021.
The researchers used the crime severity index, which accounts for both the volume and severity of police-reported crimes committed. They said there was incomplete data for 2021, so that wasn’t included in the findings.
Stacey Hannem, a criminology professor at Ontario’s Wilfrid Laurier University who didn’t take part in the research, said using the index is “smart” because unlike a raw crime rate, the index indicates how serious the crimes are in a given location..
“They’re giving us a representation if spending money on police is making communities safer,” Hannem said. “It’s a solid study.”
In Hamilton, for example, the police budget has steadily increased over the past decade. This year, the police service is asking for $213 million, up $20 million from 2023. Police said the increase is primarily due to staffing costs.
But the crime severity index has fluctuated in Hamilton, according to Seabrook. There was also no significant correlation between funding and crime rates.
“They don’t seem to be related.”
Seabrook said there was a lot of variation among the 20 cities in how much police services received in funding. There were also variations in how the crime severity index changed compared to funding.
She said the study is the first in Canada that compares police budgets with crime rates, and is meant to lay the foundation for future research on policing and municipal spending.
Seabrook noted there were limitations in some cities because some past municipal budgets weren’t available online and the municipalities didn’t respond to inquiries from the team. That was the case in Hamilton, she said, where one year of data was missing.
Hannem said people should be “deeply concerned” researchers struggled to get access to some municipal budgets.
Police say study measures only ‘one aspect’ of work
Hamilton police spokesperson Jackie Penman said in an email that the service commends the authors for the research and the study was “important.”
She also said “it is only measuring one aspect of our obligations of delivering adequate and effective policing under the Police Services Act.”
“We know policing is not the only driver in reducing crime,” she said.
At least one expert agreed. Laura Huey, a criminologist and professor at London, Ont.’s Western University, responded to the study’s results on social media platform X, saying policing includes responding to “non-crime calls,” missing persons, protests and more.
Penman said London’s demand for a police response “far exceeds” the number of officers who can be dispatched, and the service is looking for “efficiencies” to meet the demand.
That includes “investing in community partnerships to move police from default service providers to risk intervention and prevention.”
Convincing public may be ‘uphill battle’
Schneider, the Brandon University researcher, said while the paper shows increasing police budgets aren’t necessarily making communities safer, many people feel safe when they hear councillors say they’re investing more money in police services.
Schneider said it may be an “uphill battle” to convince some people the money could be better spent elsewhere.
Hannem said the research is a chance for people to instead focus on investments in youth, education, housing and other social services.
“To not look more seriously at those kinds of interventions … would be crazy,” she said.
“[That] would be to ignore the evidence,” Schneider added.