Prince Albert city council approved a $649,000 increase to the City’s 2021 police budget, but declined a request to fund additional officer positions.
The 2021 budget represents a 3.88 per cent increase over what the police received in 2020. The increases will help cover term contracted services, programs and counselling for staff, a new casual traffic prosecutor position, and another janitor to help clean up with cleaning and disinfecting the two main police buildings during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Most city councillors agreed there was a need for additional officers, but said it couldn’t be done under the current budget. Instead, most councillors want the provincial and federal governments to step up and help the City out.
“We have other issues that other communities don’t face, and our crime index is very reflective of that,” Ward 6 Coun. Blake Edwards said during the meeting. “The funding isn’t appropriate. I hope this year we can get them into a room and say, ‘it’s time Prince Albert is recognized,’ because our taxpayers are paying a great amount of money.”
Edwards said police are doing a good job of taking guns and drugs off the streets, but said the courts aren’t giving offenders appropriate sentences, which makes policing difficult. He added that other levels of government needed to “wake up” and realize Prince Albert police serve a much larger population than is shown on the census.
Ward 3 Coun. Tony Head introduced a motion to fund three of the four police positions in 2021. Head originally said council could offset the increase by making cuts in other areas. However, he withdrew his motion after an in-camera discussion.
Head maintained that Prince Albert needs more police, but declined to support it this year after looking at the amount of unfunded liabilities in the budget. Like Edwards, Head hoped city council would lobby other levels of government for more help.
Public protests were held across the world last summer calling for the defunding of police services following the death of Minnesota man George Floyd. Since then, city council has shown little appetite for decreasing the police budget, and that continued during budget debates on Jan. 6.
Ward 5 Coun. Dennis Ogrodnick said he’s had emails from residents about defunding the police. He said residents might be more supportive the current funding level if they knew just how much the police do besides traditional policing.
“We all need to do a better job … in explaining to the public what (police) do,” Ogrodnick said during council meetings.
“We are engaging in trying to reduce crime,” he added. “We need help and we need more money to do it.”
The Prince Albert Police Service includes 100 sworn members and 26 permanent civilian staff. The provincial government funds 23 sworn officer positions. Those officers work in a variety of different departments and units, and includes four members of the Integrated Crime Reduction Team, three members of the Enhanced Investigative Policing Street Enforcement Team, and three members of the Serious Habitual Offender Comprehensive Action Program. The province also pays for members working in units investigating child sexual exploitation and missing persons.
Police Chief Jon Bergen, who received a strong vote of confidence from several council members during the meeting, said there’s no doubt the city needs more officers. The four new sworn positions would cost an extra $227,700 in 2021, and $429,200 in 2022.
“We know that it’s a big ask, but we wouldn’t ask if we didn’t need it,” Bergen told council.
“We do double, and we do it with half the money, because we don’t have the operating amounts that we see across the country,” he added.
In 2019, Prince Albert police dealt with 38,555 calls for service, which works out to 402 calls per officer. That’s well ahead of what other Saskatchewan police departments deal with.
Saskatoon had 117,642 calls for service in 2019, but with 470 sworn officers, that works out to 274 calls per member. Moose Jaw police received 274 calls per officer, while Regina received 141. National data for 2019 was unavailable, but in 2018, the average Canadian police department responded to 187 calls per officer.
Prince Albert’s crime severity index is also significantly higher than other Saskatchewan communities. It was 279.58 in 2019, compared to 137.01 in Regina, 132.57 in Saskatoon, and 110.35 in Moose Jaw. The National average in 2018 was 75.
Prince Albert consistently has some of the highest violent and non-violent crime rates among cities with more than 10,000 people. In 2019, Prince Albert had the third highest violent crime rate. It was fourth in 2018 and sixth in 2017.
Bergen said COVID-19 had a significant impact on 2020 crime rates. Non-violent crimes, like theft, dropped since so many residents stayed home while businesses and facilities stayed closed. However, violent crimes, like murder, actually increased.
Prince Albert police investigated six homicides in 2019, a figure Bergen said was “abnormally high.” They had nine homicide investigations in 2020, plus a missing person case that is considered suspicious.
“We’ve had high numbers before … but what we saw last year was an unfortunate record,” Bergen told council.
Salaries, wages and benefits make up 82.55 per cent of the Prince Albert Police Service budget. Bergen told council that’s around the national average.