Communities across Canada that lack their own police depend on Mounties as the cheaper option. But with forces facing heavy caseloads, staffing crunches and looming unionization, critics wonder if the tradeoff is worth it . Matthew McClearnColin Freezeand Sunny Dhillon investigate

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When it comes to policing, B.C.’s Lower Mainland looks like a balkanized state: If you live in Vancouver, officers drive black sedans marked Vancouver Police; drive a few kilometres away, across the Lions Gate Bridge to North Vancouver, and you’ll see police cars emblazoned with the RCMP crest.

For many residents, the difference may seem negligible. But an examination of the two forces reveals significant differences: Vancouverites pay about $420 per capitaeach year for their standalone police force. Residents of North Vancouver pay notably less. Their RCMP-operated municipal force – one of more than a dozen operated by the Mounties in the Lower Mainland – costs $230 per capita.

How that money translates into deployments on the street varies significantly, too. In Vancouver, taxpayers get one police officer for every 494 people. Residents of North Vancouver, whose streets are patrolled by the RCMP, get a force that’s more thinly stretched: one officer for every 952 people.

A similar pattern plays out across the Lower Mainland, where a Globe and Mail investigation reveals that municipalities with RCMP-operated forces pass on significant savings to taxpayers, but the discount appears to come at a cost. Data from 21 municipalities shows that RCMP forces grapple with disproportionately low staffing, while carrying significantly higher caseloads.

RCMP representatives dispute the findings, suggesting that some of the comparisons between RCMP and independent forces are based on “blunt tool” measurements and, in some cases, data that the Mounties capture in different ways. Staff Sergeant Tania Vaughan, a spokeswoman for the police force, adds that,[tooltip id=”4500c2f113202943ff1ae30d00c9d4ac”] [/tooltip]“In order to address crime-related issues, one cannot look solely at police.” Socioeconomic factors such as employment and poverty levels play a significant role in crime levels, she said, and issues such as “trust and confidence in police, community satisfaction and community engagement make it difficult to compare jurisdictions on metrics alone.”

But labour organizers keen on unionizing the RCMP have highlighted low staffing levels and concerns about pay and work conditions in crosscountry tours over the past year.[tooltip id=”4500c2f113202943ff1ae30d00c9d4ac”] [/tooltip]“You’re getting the Dollar Store of police rates when you take a contract from the Mounties,” a representative of the fledgling National Police Federation told a handful of officers at a gathering in North Battleford, Sask., last March.

Cash-strapped municipalities aren’t complaining. More than 150 municipalities and hundreds of smaller communities currently use Mounties in the place of standalone officers because of the deep discount that the federal institution’s contract policing model provides. Through a cost-sharing agreement, Ottawa covers 10 per cent of most policing costs in jurisdictions that opt for RCMP forces. In communities of less than 15,000, the contribution rises to 30 per cent. It’s a bargain that many municipalities find too enticing to give up.

The next RCMP commissioner – due to be appointed this year – will face growing pressure from labour organizers to improve salaries and working conditions for officers. And as RCMP costs rise, they may also need to address an increasingly thorny question: What’s a Mountie worth to Canadian municipalities?

For the communities that have become addicted to low-cost, subsidized policing, the answer is complicated.

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