Security firms eye profits in push to privatize police services

When it comes to skyrocketing policing costs, Eli El-Chantiry points his finger squarely at fingerprinting.

 “Does that need a police officer to do it?” says the chairman of Ottawa’s police services board and city councillor for West Carleton-March ward.

In fact, he says, fingerprinting is just one of many current police duties that private security agencies could perform at a lower cost, potentially saving local taxpayers millions of dollars every year.

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“Really, do you need a police officer to do traffic (control)?” he asks.

Those are also some of the questions being raised in a recent report from the Macdonald-Laurier Institute on the rising costs of policing in Canada. The Ottawa-based think-tank says that while calls for service have remained stable over the past decade, police budgets have increased at an annual rate almost double that of GDP growth.

“Canadians are not getting all the police they pay for,” the report says. “In fact, a great deal of work now done by highly trained, well-paid and experienced uniformed officers is only tangentially related to law enforcement and could be done as well or better and more cheaply by someone else, freeing police to do their core job.”

Civilian employees or private security firms could perform many police functions at a lower cost, the report says, including fingerprinting, investigating burglaries, collecting DNA evidence, conducting background checks, transcribing interviews and transporting prisoners.

Almost 40 per cent of the Toronto Police Service’s workforce earned more than $100,000 in 2012, including six parking enforcement officers, the report notes. In Ottawa, meanwhile, more than 1,000 of the service’s 1,950 uniformed and civilian employees garnered six-figure salaries in 2013.

“The real question is why police who are making upwards of $100,000 a year are performing so many tasks that are not really core policing duties,” the report says.

Mr. El-Chantiry wonders the same thing.

“To be honest with you, the sustainability of police is in question right now,” he says. “The budget is going out of our control.”

Business opportunities

Those in the security industry say the Macdonald-Laurier study highlights a golden opportunity for private companies.

“We are aggressively pursuing this as a business because we believe it fits very well with our workforce,” says Paul Guindon, the CEO of Commissionaires Ottawa.

The second-largest private-sector employer in the region, with a head count of about 3,700, the firm already provides security for the Federal Court and handles a variety of bylaw enforcement duties in other Canadian cities, he says.

“Everybody agrees things have to change, but they have yet to change (in Ottawa),” says Mr. Guindon, adding the not-for-profit enterprise has met with local police board officials several times over the past few years about doing everything from background checks to crime scene security, but has yet to make any inroads.

“Change is scary,” he says, adding police boards must also deal with unions that resist the outsourcing of their members’ work.

Nevertheless, the firm, which employs a large number of former military members and ex-RCMP officers, has landed contracts with forces in several other large Canadian cities.

In Halifax, for example, 39 Commissionaires now perform a wide range of roles for the regional police. In addition to doing front-counter reception and security duty, they take fingerprints, perform background checks, deliver subpoenas and work in the mailroom.

Deputy chief Bill Moore estimates that handing over those responsibilities to the private sector has saved the Halifax police almost $3 million a year in labour costs, while providing valuable experience to Commissionaires if they eventually want to apply for full-time jobs with the service.

“It’s actually a win-win,” he says. “We’ve had a very good relationship with the corps.”

‘Many possibilities’

Competing security firms also believe there is a place for them with Canadian police forces.

Montreal-based GardaWorld, which has about 800 employees in Ottawa, provides screening and security at airports across the country and enforces parking bylaws in some cities.

Chief operating officer Marc-André Aubé looks at the numbers in the Macdonald-Laurier report and sees a huge new potential client base.

“There are so many possibilities,” he says, listing traffic control and responding to burglar alarms as two areas where he thinks his company could save big money for municipal forces. He has addressed the issue with the Quebec police chiefs association and says that while top cops everywhere seem intrigued with the idea of handing over work to companies like his, few are prepared to follow through, at least for the time being.

“It’s a sector that has been immune to budget reduction,” Mr. Aubé says. “I see a clear desire from some administrations … to hear the message, but it ends there. They’re not at the cliff yet. There’s a will, but I don’t see hundreds of millions of dollars of business being outsourced to the private sector. It’s not happening.”

Mr. Guindon agrees.

“There’s been no crisis yet,” he says. “It’s a very slow evolution.”

University of Ottawa criminologist Michael Kempa, who studies policing trends, says that while privatization might save municipalities money, it could end up creating other problems.

“The danger with private policing is, it’s much less accountable than public police,” he says. “The public system is not perfect, but at it’s least it’s visible, and people have some sense of who they’re supposed to go to if they feel they’ve been wronged.”

Privatizing police work is a sensitive issue and can’t be taken lightly, Mr. Moore says.

“I don’t know if I could say it’s a trend, but I think it’s certainly something that’s on the minds of most chiefs in this country,” he says.

“There’s been a lot of calls to simply move (duties such as fingerprinting) to private (firms). I think it’s not as simple as that. I think that you need to really look at your organization. I don’t think there’s one right answer.”

Here in Ottawa, Mr. El-Chantiry says turning to agencies like the Commissionaires is something at which the cash-strapped police board has to take a serious look.

“Every job in the organization should be evaluated and we should ask ourselves, ‘Who can do this job? Can this job be civilianized? If that’s the case, who is best?’ I’m not ruling anything out at this point.”


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