Hamilton police want to hire six civilians to help them process crime scene evidence, which they say will free up six sworn police officers to go back to frontline patrol.
The proposal would bring more frontline patrol officers to Hamilton streets at a time when increased shootings have attracted attention and criticism from federal MP Bob Bratina, who questioned whether the city has adequate policing resources.
Police Chief Eric Girt said the civilian hires would focus on digital evidence-gathering and processing needs, which have grown significantly in recent years. The amount of time officers spend on calls for digital evidence support is up 131 per cent over 2012, he said.
"What is the major growth area, that will touch victims, that help us solve crimes quicker?" - Hamilton Police Chief Eric Girt
Girt said he considered asking the board to fund more frontline officers, but said "it's a balance" to keep costs in line while still trying to address crime trends.
Hiring civilian "special constables" to tackle a digital evidence-gathering workload that has ballooned in recent years is the service's proposed solution.
"What is the major growth area, that will touch victims, that help us solve crimes quicker?" he said. "So, indirectly so to speak, if I solve this crime quicker, gather the digital evidence, I can process that piece, that frees up my frontline to go to other things."
2018 budget proposes hiring 9 staff
The proposal is part of a proposed $161 million budget for 2018, approved by the police oversight board on Thursday. The budget now goes to city council for approval in January.
Girt is seeking a 2.45 per cent increase in the budget over 2017.
In addition to regular cost-of-living increases built in to officer contracts, the increase includes nine staff positions:
- those six civilian positions in digital evidence, distributed as two to each police station;
- another civilian in the digital evidence department;
- a sworn detective constable in the digital evidence unit;
- a detective constable in the sexual assault unit.
'Throwing money at issues'
While shootings in Hamilton rose to 40 this year, Girt showed statistics showing a general decline in total crime, property crime and violent crime over the past 10 years.
Girt said the city "punches above our weight" in terms of the crime rate compared to its officers-to-population ratio.
Bratina suggested in his comments last weekend that the city's police were inadequately funded. Whitehead raised several questions to the chief and senior command about Bratina's comments.
"Throwing money at issues doesn't necessarily mean you're going to get results," Whitehead said.
Police Supt. Ryan Diodati discussed the number of shootings, where a victim was shot or shot at, and said the police service continues to see those incidents tied to the drug trade and turf wars.
But, he said, beyond shootings, total gun-related crimes – including home invasions, assaults and threats – are down over the past three years.
"Throwing more cash at the situation is not necessarily going to bring shootings down." - Hamilton Police Service Supt. Ryan Diodati
He said investigating the shootings is complex.
"Often what will happen is that we have an uncooperative victim, they won't provide any information with regards to the suspect description, and that type of thing," Diodati said.
"So if I gave you an unlimited budget and said 'OK, apply it to eliminating guns in the community,' is there not limitations in what you can do based on the complexities of this issue?" Whitehead asked.
Diodati said there were more involved investigative techniques the service would apply with more resources, but said it would be difficult to predict the effect on gun availability and incidents.
"Throwing more cash at the situation is not necessarily going to bring shootings down," Diodati said.
Additional sexual assault resources
Girt said an increase in sexual assault cases underscores the need for another detective in that unit as well. There were 546 cases in 2016, up 83 per cent from 298 in 2008.
"We've had a growth in awareness and a willingness (on the part of victims) to come forward," Girt said.
He emphasized the work begun this year to address sexual assault cases that were dismissed as "unfounded" in the wake of a Globe and Mail investigation.
Police are now working with representatives from the Crown attorney's office, the Sexual Assault Centre of Hamilton and Area, and the Native Women's Centre to review the service's handling of sexual assault, Girt said.
Girt said the year ahead will bring other challenges for policing. There are changes to grapple with like the legalization of marijuana, possible changes to suspension without pay for officers suspected of misconduct and other changes to the Police Services Act in Ontario.