Will more police officers patrolling Hamilton streets make you safer?

Not necessarily, says one criminologist.

The question of how man police officers the city needs has become a key issue in the ongoing standoff over the city's police budget, with chief Glen de Caire pushing for 20 new hires.

The service has pointed out that Hamilton's police strength ratio — how many police officers per 100,000 of population — is 153, much lower than the provincial average of 197.

At city hall on Wednesday, Deputy Police Chief Ken Leenderste urged councillors to approve the police services board's request for a 3.71-per-cent budget increase over last year to help fund the extra staff.

'How many officers do we need to fulfill those functions?' We're coming at it backwards.' —Michael Kempa, criminologist

"Obviously we need the officers," he told councillors, who later voted to ask the board to trim its requested increase to 3.52 per cent. "There's a significant amount of work that needs to be done."

University of Ottawa criminologist Michael Kempa says police-to-population comparisons aren't good metrics to use to determine whether a city has an adequate number of officers. "It's not a very good measure to sort of gauge police adequacy because there is no one ratio that is suitable for all different types of municipalities."

The law enforcement needs in a city of 500,000 people are different from those in a city of with 1 million residents, Kempa said.

"The ratios break down because the crime demands are different in these different scales of cities," he said.

And two cities with roughly equal numbers of residents, he added, might require vastly different police staffing levels because of their specific demographics and economic situations.

According to Statistics Canada, in 2011, the Toronto Police Service, which serves a city of nearly 3 million, had a police strength ratio of 212 officers per 100,000 residents. In the York and Peel, regional municipalities that each has a population of more than 1 million, the ratios are 141 per 100,000 and 150 per 100,000, respectively.

Kempa told CBC Hamilton that police forces, instead of simply arguing they need to hire officers to keep up with other municipalities, should try to identify the direction in which crime is trending, and adjust their staffing levels accordingly.

"So we've posed the question in the wrong direction. We've said, "How many officers do we need?" rather than define the functions and say, "How many officers do we need to fulfill those functions?' We're coming at it backwards."

Taking this proactive approach might be more effective way of selling police budget increases to municipal politicians, especially in times of fiscal belt-tightening.

Budget arbitration looms

The debate over the city's 2013 police budget has dragged on for almost five months. In late November, the police made their first pitch, asking for an increase of 5.25 per cent over 2012. Last year, the force's operating budget came in at $140,219,590, representing about one-fifth of the city's annual expenditures.

The police services board has since trimmed its budget request three times. Council rejected its most recent appeal on Wednesday, asking for the board to whittle down its budget further.

If the board balks, the issue could go to provincial arbitration.

McMaster University labour expert Wayne Lewchuk told CBC Hamilton last week that arbitration could be risky for both parties in the conflict.

"When you go to binding arbitration, in some ways you lose a bit of control over the outcome," the  labour and economics professor said.

"So usually both parties are a little bit reluctant to go that route. There's always a risk that when you put things in someone else's hands — you could end up surprised."

"This is a bit of a game of chicken."

With files from Samantha Craggs and Adam Carter