Here's why London's police chief wants to hire 52 more officers
The police services board has approved the request but it still needs the green light from council
The London Police Service has the approval from the board that oversees its work to add 52 new frontline police constables to its force to address what Chief Steve Williams calls unprecedented demand. He'll now need to make his case to London City Council.
Williams spoke to London Morning's Rebecca Zandbergen to further explain. Here's that interview.
RZ: Why 52 officers?
SW: It's a large number of officers and it is a lot of money. We've conducted a fairly extensive staffing analysis which is tied to our workload. We believe that number — staged in over a period of time — will allow us to improve our response time and our capacity to conduct some of the proactive and preventative policing that we were doing but are no longer. It will assist our officers who are obviously impacted by the workload and are feeling the burnout. I do appreciate it's a big ask.
RZ: And what is the cost?
SW: That's what we need to work through in the coming months. A fourth class constable, which is basically a new hire, starts at around $64,000 a year and it goes up progressively as they gain experience. We'd be looking for a staged approach, where over the next two to three or four years, these officers are integrated into our service. [CBC Note: based on starting and progressive salaries, the 52 officers will cost between $3 million and $6 million annually].
RZ: In the past you've told me only 20 per cent of your calls have anything to do with crime. 80 per cent are about disturbances, disorder, mental illness and addiction issues. Would you prefer the money go to some of the services these people clearly need?
SW: There are clearly underlying issues. Addiction, mental health and homelessness are underlying issues that impact what we're seeing on the streets. We've also seen a massive increase — exponential — in the use of weapons and firearms, in particular. There are upstream solutions that should be invested in by other levels of government, I would suggest. But at the end of the day we are still responding to 911 calls and when that call comes in, regardless of the underlying issue, we need to respond. It's unrelenting and these calls continue to come in. It's not so much the volume of calls, it's the nature of the calls and the volatility and the violence. Emergency calls alone have almost doubled over the last two years. These are urgent calls for service that we need to respond to and the public expects us to respond to.
RZ: Do you think if the city invested the money for those 52 officers into things that would help people with mental health and housing issues, you might actually see your calls come down?
SW: That's a longer term solution. I use mental health as a good example. We know what happened 25 or 30 years ago with the mental health facilities we had — past tense — in London, and we are feeling the effects of that right now. To allocate a portion of the budget to mental health right now would obviously be helpful. But it took us decades to get into this position and it's going to be a longer way to dig out. The upstream solutions are important and they need to be funded properly, but at the end of the day, we're still receiving these calls and the public expects a response and they deserve a response.
RZ: I know the police services board has approved the request. You still need the green light from council. Is that likely?
SW: There's going to be challenges, for sure. I'm very aware of the shape of the budget year we're heading into. I've had conversations with the city manager and the city treasurer. We know we spend taxpayer money and we have to be aware of that. We're going to present options to my board with how we can phase in the staffing that we need over a period of years and we'll work with the city and we'll share information. I've already spoken to a number of city councillors about our challenges, so it's a matter of working through it over the next number of months.
RZ: How would 52 more officers help?
SW: First off, we will see a better response time. Right now, response time is, by and large, measured in hours, sometimes days, and it's not acceptable. So we will have a quicker response to the community when they call 911. We will be able to redeploy our community-oriented response unit who were doing very important, proactive, preventative work in the community. They're very visible. We've heard loud and clear across the community that there's a need and a desire for that visibility. Over 3,000 times last year, our officers missed their relief period, and that's okay once in a while, but if you do that day after day and you're responding call-to-call with no break, that accumulates and is stressful. It impacts their wellness. We want to restore some balance there and make sure they're healthy and safe and good to come to work.
RZ: You've been doing police work for a long time now. How you have seen policing change over the years that now you can't keep up with the calls?
SW: I've seen the volatility and the pace of police work really pick up. There are no slow periods. It's a 24/7 operation and it wasn't quite like that when I was a constable on the road. But we're not a small town. We know our city is one of the fastest growing in the province and with that comes big city issues that require an appropriately-staffed police service. So, we need to grow, too. Unfortunately, we're falling behind. We're behind.
RZ: This is a bit of a Band-Aid solution. You've said the longer term solution is going to take years to achieve. Do you hope at some point London won't need as many officers as we have right now?
SW: I really do. It took us decades to get to where we are today. But I do believe if there's proper upstream supports for people who need help, then that will mitigate a lot of what we're seeing right now. There's other issues with weapons and violence that I do not have an answer for. We're seeing it across the province and across the country. There's going to be multiple solutions but we will always need policing, but at this point I think we need an injection of staffing to address these challenges.