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  • Writer's pictureJohn Chisholm

The Police Can't Tell Your Money Where To Go

Halifax police at Remembrance Day ceremony in the Grand Parade


Recent social upheaval and calls for change both here in Nova Scotia and across North America have focused attention on this budget like no other in modern history. At the extreme end there are calls to Defund the Police because it is an anachronistic tool of violence and social control with an irredeemably horrible history that preys, sometimes mercilessly, on the very people it should be working to help. In the middle, people are arguing that through a kind of mission creep a lot of jobs are falling to the police that should more rightly be the work of social workers, janitors, teachers, community activist and organizers, PR people, and all kinds of other trades. At the other end there are passionate police boosters who say policing is the most dangerous job in the world (it's actually not even in the top ten) and that police should be paid more because they put their lives on the line every day for us. Who is right? What should we do? How should it be decided? By Whom? How much should police get paid? Where should the money come from and where should it be spent? These are the questions the budget and its narrative story should answer clearly but doesn't.

I'm going to do some simple math, just addition, subtraction, and division, to translate the HALIFAX police budget into information that is comparable and understandable with the idea that this is the very basic minimum information citizens and politicians need to develop informed opinions on the big issue of defunding the police.

This is what the police budget looks like in the Budget Document

Let's dig in and pull out the serious numbers. Here's the story. In Halifax we have municipal regional city police and contracted RCMP. The total cost per year of the regional police is about $97m and the cost of the RCMP contract is about $28 million.

Combined the total yearly cost of police is about $125m.

By far the largest portion of the budget goes to the cost of police labour: Salaries, wages, benefits, overtime, contracts. The Chief says it's about 97% of budget. Adding up those accounts gets us

Here's the first problem. And it's revealing in its mystery. Regional police spend about $91.7m of their $97m budget on labour, but there's no way to tell from the budget detail how much of the RCMP budget is labour. I'm going to make an Assumption. This is a big deal. Assumptions are crucial to budgeting and they have to be clearly articulated and well understood. Budgets are about the future. We don't really know what's going to happen. In this case it's even worse. The RCMP charges a flat contract. There's a good chance the detail of labour is not in the city Halifax budget because they don't know how the RCMP came up with their number. Because, you know, the RCMP is not a transparent organization. Let's say 91.7/97th's of the RCMP $28m budget is labour. That's about $26.3m.

Total police labour - $118m

$118m / $125m = about 94% of the total budget

Outside professional sports there are few undertakings where labour costs are such a high percentage of budget. Retail and food service expect around 25% of their budgets to be labour. It's well known that labour makes up an ever smaller portion of manufacturing budgets. In my industry, film and TV, the cost of technology is going down but labour, including stars is still typically around 50% of budget. In construction labour is about 40% of budget. Policing is unique.

Here's the main question in budgeting, in accounting and finance, economics, and indeed all of math. If you ask this one question and truly look to understand the answer or non-answer given, then you will come away as informed as any reasonable person should be. The main question will always be:


The rest of this post will be dedicated to understanding, asking and answering, this question: Is That a Big Number? Context matters.


The regional force has a total strength of 531 sworn officers, 151 civilian staff, 170 crossing guards, nine K-9 dogs and two horses. It is headed by Daniel Kinsella, chief of police. HRP is also responsible for armed security and response at Halifax Stanfield International Airport.

The Halifax Police Force was started in an unofficial manner pretty much on the day the modern city was founded July 18, 1749. Each ship arriving in the port city of Halifax would appoint one member of the crew to act as a constable responsible for the actions of the crew and passengers on board. In January 1799, the "night patrol" was formed to address a number of break and enters that hit the area in the previous year.

July 1813, was marked by widespread rioting started by American naval officers paroled in Halifax after their ship was taken and people were singing patriotic English songs about it. This is unnessessary detail. The riots happened because people downtown drank WAY too much and started fights over anything. We can relate. The militia were called up to take over policing duties. They were discharged in February 1814, but quickly re-instated less than a month later when rioting resumed.

In October 1864 the day watch and night watch merged to form the Halifax Police Department under City Marshall Garrett Cotter. Six divisions were formed with five men assigned to each sergeant. Halifax got its first detective in 1873. Amalgamation brought the RCMP, Bedford, and Dartmouth police forces together in HRM.

It's interesting because this history pretty much parallels the horrible history of policing in all Western countries.

Their budget this year, adjusted after the CORONA VIRUS hit is about $125m.

Is That a Big Number?

$125m is about 13% of the Total $955m budget.

With about 400,000 people in Halifax $125m is about $312 per person a year. That's about $6 dollars per week per person in Halifax.

For $6 per week you get... these figures are a little dated but this will put you in the zone...

  • 615 police officers (RCMP and Regional)

  • 151 civilians/public servants/commissionaires

  • 170 school crossing guards

  • 9 police service dogs and handlers in the K-9 Unit

  • 118 marked police cruisers; 115 unmarked vehicles

  • 6 all terrain vehicles, 8 dirt bikes and 11 bikes 4 boats

  • 12 motorcycles, used by the Traffic Unit

  • 5 radar trailers, 4 utility trailers and 1 bomb trailer

  • 2 horses in the Mounted Unit

  • 8 police stations and 11 community offices

  • 20,000+ criminal records checks conducted

  • 24,597 Summary Offence Tickets issued

  • 440 check points conducted

  • 108, 341 vehicles checked

  • Bylaw enforcement/ remedy for noise, dangerous & unsightly premises, curbside solid waste, sidewalk snow & ice removal, pesticides, and smoking

Based on the annual SUNSHINE LIST, Global news reported this summer that 458 of the 615 or so police officers make over $100,000 per year. That's about double Nova Scotia's median income, which is among the lowest in the country. Being a police officer is a very good job in Nova Scotia, probably the best paying local government job available in big numbers with relatively little formal training or education.

Typically a job as a police officer requires Grade 12 and about 38 weeks training. For comparison a job in Social Work, in many ways the most comparable job working with the same public, the same risks, and often the same tasks, albeit viewed from a very different perspective, requires a masters degree that takes at least 6 years of training and pays about 60% of what policing does. It's worth noting here, though it's changing a little, most social workers are women and most police are men.

And here's one other crucial piece of information...


The police reported crime rate in Halifax, according to the government is about half what it was 20 years ago.

So... congratulations? The police are doing a great job? They deserve a raise?

Not so fast.

Crime rates have dropped astonishingly across Canada and the US, only leveling off a little in the last couple years. The reason why is complicated and much discussed. The theory that's most widely discussed is that by the mid 1990's the demographic segment that committed most violent and property crime simply ceased to exist. Shared birth control information, the availability of the pill, and better access to abortions meant that the crime-prone mostly poor unattended young men simply were never born.

It's very difficult for the police to take much credit for this. It also makes it difficult to see why our fear has gone up over that time, our interest in 'law and order' politicians has increased, and our police budgets have gone up rather than down.

Let's look at it a different way.

In their report FREEDOM TO THRIVE The Center of Popular Democracy and Law For Black Lives commissioned a detailed comparative report into the costs and benefits of policing. Over a dozen organizations and cities took part in the study.

Among cities profiled, per capita police spending ranges from $381 to as high as $772.

Policing costs ranged from 8.2% to 41.2% of city budgets.

At about $6 per week, our cost of policing is a little less per person than a typical city and at 13% a smaller portion of our total budget than most cities.

Roughly, we spend about the same on policing as we do on Public Transit (though it is paid through a mix of taxes and fares), and Public Works; a little more than we spend on Fire and emergency Services. Roughly 4 times what we spend on Libraries or Parks & Recreation.


Policing is a very labour intensive undertaking. Technology is not currently impacting police efficiency in Halifax. For comparison, the UK has moved over the last 30 years to a public surveillance technology for policing that has had a lasting effect on crime and the police themselves.

Halifax spends less on police than many places any way you slice it. But police officers as a group have the best paying jobs in local government and this may be quite far out of line with comparable work such as social work and with a huge gender and representation gap.

Though not out of proportion, the Police Budget is the largest single slice of our local budget and getting bigger both in total and in proportion at a time when crime is actually going down dramatically over the long term and it's not because of changes in policing.


The truth about the police budget lies in the hidden details. The police budget is provocative because it is written in a way that it doesn't at all get at what the police actually do. There is literally no indication. Where is the money being spent? Geographically? Socially? How do they spend their days? What are the police doing that they shouldn't and where? What are they not doing that they should? We don't know much about this from the budget.

The best version of the police historically were watchmen, they were beat cops, they were detectives, they were the people, the only people, who were professionally paid to set the tone of society on our streets night and day, preventing not just crime but raising up our everyday sense of safety and security. And, if a crime occurred, actively being seen to try to investigate and solve the case where, like our favourite TV detective they could be judged by their success rate.

Today we rarely see beat cops in the traditional sense. Every kind of business hires their own security guards and watchmen and women. The private security business both in labour and systems is booming. Detectives are seldom seen if your stuff gets stolen. And downtown at night? The situation is probably more fraught now than it ever was.

Even the bland statistics tell what the police really get up to: over 100,000 vehicle stops, near 25,000 summary tickets, and endless bylaw enforcement triggered by complaints - reactive rather than proactive work. Plus the sloppy business of downtown, the drunk tank, and generally rousting people who aren't white or able for any reason to blend in and out of sight.

What else is missing? Smiles. It's a cultural problem. Across our society the police aren't meeting our expectations and needs as social leaders.

We also know a lot about where the police themselves would like to go. It's not good: increasingly militarized, increasingly high tech, increasingly in cars, increasingly back from the frontline, increasingly in power and control, increasingly like the heroes we see on TV, increasingly insular and defensive in their culture. In a tragic time, a type of armoured and weaponized personnel carrier became the symbol of local policing this year. The central struggle became about Budgeting for such a vehicle.


The police work for us. Citizens. No mater how the mission and culture has drifted they're good people, good workers, they want to please, the want to do the jobs we decide for them. If we manage the force right a few bad apples will not be left to spoil the barrel.

The police force and their budget is overseen by a board that by its own claims is dysfunctional and ineffective to the point of being rudderless. They've even written reports on how bad things are. The board is not in a good spot.

The board is supposed to provide civilian oversight of the Halifax Regional Police and the RCMP in the Halifax district. "The fact that the police commission is unknown to much of the public is a sign of its failure." say two former commissioners.

The most important document and commentary needed to understand the problem at the top of the Halifax police and why their budget is not a clear statement of purpose is a GOVERNANCE REVIEW written by two members of the board in 2016. Mike Moreash and Fred Hornsberger outlined their concerns in a governance review of the Board of Police Commissioners made public in September 2016. You can read the dreary details here.


The time is right to stop and start again with policing. It's time to build a new budget, not based on last year's, or last century's, but on what we need and want for the future: A police force that meets our need for feeling safe and secure, makes business feel guarded, and doesn't make anyone feel unfairly persecuted. We have to rethink the value of the vehicle-centric policing, the summary tickets, the drunk tank, the downtown brigade, and the response units to bylaw complaints. Are these necessarily $100k plus a year jobs? Are the the police, given the way they are selected and trained the best solution for these challenges? We also need to come to terms with how our imagining of the police based on movies and TV police detective procedural is clouding our ability to understand everyday policing.

The budget, at a glance, should be part of an understandable story able to answer the basic questions: what are our values, what is our purpose, our best ideas, what are our hopes and fears. How are we directing our limited resources in the best way?

If you'd like to dig deeper I'm happy to help. I also have this link to the STRONG TOWNS course on budgeting, a HOW-TO guide for making sense of Local Government Budgets. It is brilliant.

From here I'll be doing my final posts in this series ahead of the Municipal Election on other aspects of budgeting finance, and rreally focusing in on taxes.

The big idea is that Citizens are the creative engine, their elected representative turn that creative insatiable urge for better into policy and budgets, and then the bureaucracy carries out the policy within the bounds of the budget and sustainably realizes the creative dream. That's the magic trinity of local government. 3 is the magic number.

Here's a palette cleanser. Blind Melon School House Rockin' out 3, The Magic Number.

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