The Pay Raise Gamble

Police officers and their managers have always had a comfy, cocoon like existence —somewhat removed from the economic up and down and cycles of the “real” world. Profit, loss and the measurement of productivity is an anathema to the world of policing.

They have often been able to “social distance” itself from the the pettiness and give and take of pesty budget concerns. “Cutbacks” during the last few decades, and especially in the RCMP has never really been in the policing lexicon.

To be sure there were years where in the “police universe” the Mounties received the short end of the stick, falling behind some of the bigger municipalities, at least for short periods of time. In the end, the Mounties were almost always dragged up the wage ladder by the other unionized forces across Canada. 

There was a time when the Federal government “froze” the wages of government workers, but that time is lost to the institutional memory of this group of officers. But for the most part, time was always on their side and the Mounties were able to live off the others. Their “universe” was a close orbit, made up of only other police agencies. When given to complain, the RCMP officers were only forced to an easy comparison. Any higher wage was justified by pointing to those other cops on the other side of the street. If they got a raise, you got a raise.

Quite naturally, there was no comparison to the economic worlds around them—those who were paying the freight. To be fair, the lack of caring or understanding of the general population mood is a characteristic of all government. Mounties policing in small towns were unfazed and unconcerned about the local budgets in terms of wages and salaries, their vision solely focused on the universal wage for police that was being determined in Ottawa. There was a constant and repetitious cry for new officers whenever a a detachment commander appeared before city counsel and never would it be couched in terms of concern for an overall budget. 

This all may be about to change.

Bankruptcy is now facing various governments on all three levels. The blame for these financial circumstances which have been thrust upon them, points directly at the “fight” against the “virus”.

Albeit, these same governments have cheered on the Federal government and their daily largesse. Every level of politician during this time had only one concern when pressed and that was to keep the electorate consoled. Only the truly brave offered up any question as to the need to be fiscally responsible.

So as the CERB cheques and business loans were shotgunned out to those in need, the deficit balloon rose to unrecognizable levels. The fiscal hammer above the political heads across the country got raised up further every day. And as gravity tells us, that hammer will eventually come down. The economic light will be shining very brightly on the unbridled spending in the next few months, and the glow from the economic fallout may be lasting for many years. 

Even before the “virus”, this blogger wrote several months ago, about the revelation that the Ontario government and various Ontario municipalities were trying to come to grips with budget shortfall issues and in particular with the growth of police budgets. The “ratcheting” of police and fire budgets was finally reaching levels where they began to get noticed. 

Defending the spending, fell to the age old axiom of the need for “public safety”. This tired and repetitious explication is now being seriously questioned for the first time in many years.

A number of police departments have three year Constable pay levels which have breached that psychological barrier of $100,000 and Police and fire services continue to grow at levels beyond the reach of the general population where salaries have stagnated for the last number of years. Police and fire budgets as a portion of municipal and provincial budgets is now the elephant in the hearing room.  

Tremors of anxiety are beginning to vibrate through the policing world as the word “cutback” is seeping in, gradually, but now discussed as an imaginable option.

This nervousness and angst finally touched down in the lotus land capital of Vancouver. This is happening in a city where government decidedly leans to the left and spends money on the services of the downtown Eastside like drunken sailors on shore leave. Although, it should not be totally surprising or unexpected when this is the same government which views whale-watching and the dispensing of cannabis edibles as suitable economic replacements for lumber or the building of gas pipelines. 

That aside, the City of Vancouver now finds itself facing a $152 million shortfall (Surrey is facing a $42 million shortfall as a comparison). The loss of jobs and shuttered businesses drying up revenues. Many argue that the full economic destruction has yet to be felt in this City of the Dispossessed.  

The other cognizant point which needs to be included in this discussion– the City of Vancouver has a legally dictated obligation to balance the budget. 

Canada’s third largest city has an overall budget of $1.6 billion. The Vancouver City Police now make up 21% of that overall budget with an annual expenditure of $340.4 million. And the greatest portion of the Vancouver city police budget is for salaries. 

To meet this $150 million shortfall the City of Vancouver has already proposed a very substantial increase of 8.2% in property taxes.

During this time they had also written to the Vancouver City police board to ask that they come up with proposals for  possible budget cuts. That was on April 14, 2020. OnApril 27th, the Police Board responded but didn’t offer any spending cuts. So City counsel imposed a 1% pay cut in the police budget, which amounted to a $3.5 million cut out of the $340 million pie for the remainder of 2020. 

They also directed, maybe more significantly, that the Vancouver Police Board in their pursuit of collective agreements with all of the three involved unions at the Police Department— that there will be  a stipulated 0% increase in 2020.  

Now, it would seem to most observers’ and probably the taxpayers of Vancouver that the proposed cuts and their proportion to the overall budget are in fact quite reasonable under these financial circumstances. But predictably, Chief Adam Palmer felt that the cuts were disastrous and went to the media with his complaint. 

What did he offer up as his major concern? 

Well “public safety” of course.

“Public safety”according to Chief Palmer was now once again in jeopardy due in part to the increase in “anti Asian racism complaints” that the Vancouver City Police were needing to now handle in the age of the virus. 

Well, it least it shows some politically correct astute thinking on behalf of the Chief, but no one is going to believe that the few cases  or a rise in commercial break-ins which have emerged have pushed this City department to the precipice. 

He also argued that City counsel did this without further conferences with him; he did not mention that he had been given opportunities to get involved in the cutbacks— but maybe being in that police cocoon may have thwarted his belief that someone would dare to cut his employees. (It should be pointed out that the Fire Department, which is always aware of its political surroundings, voluntarily made their own cutbacks.)

The Vancouver City Police union predictably also chimed in. They said that with the cutbacks and the disintegrating morale, many officers may choose to leave for the upcoming new police force in Surrey. The fact that Vancouver City could lose a number of officers to the proposed new Force is a bit of a red herring, as it is already being planned in the VPD that even outside of any budget complaints– they are going to lose a number of officers to Surrey. 

Some sources tell me that the management of the VPD are planning on the possibility that they could lose up to 200 officers to the new agency.

The ripple effect of this Surrey agency is also going to impact dramatically with the Cities of West Vancouver, Delta, and New Westminster PD’s, but that is for another blog.  

So where does this place the new union of the RCMP as they start building their case with Treasury Board for a 17% pay increase nationally. They are normally not encumbered by any sense of fiscal fallout, but along comes the damned Corona virus. The monkey wrench has now clearly been thrown into the cozy often egocentric policing world. 

It is one thing for the Federal government to feel that the Mounties need or should get a pay raise. Clearly the Liberal government is in a spending mood, so maybe Mr Trudeau will extend his daily giveaways. A 17% increase seems like a stretch at the best of times but under these depression/recession times it may be a little much to swallow all in one gulp for any government. 

But the biggest flaw in this large increase is not the willingness of the Federal government, it is that almost all of the raise would be simply pushed on to the municipalities and Provinces. At most the Feds would only have to pay 30% of that raise for those involved in contract policing. The rest, up to 90% in the case of Burnaby, or Coquitlam, has to be paid by the municipalities. As the municipal agencies are already crying to the Federal government for further financial support because of the virus burden, they would be incensed to have another huge expenditure thrust on them. 

So this leaves the Feds in a rather difficult and untenable position. Nor is it an easy one for the new leadership of the Mountie union. Now no longer needing to prostrate themselves before Treasury Board, but now facing some extraordinary budget considerations.

In terms of the policing structure in the Lower Mainland, and in the rural Provincial contracts, managers may be looking over the precipice of a significant re-structuring of the policing dynamics throughout this country. It’s possible that the virus will also be the catalyst that will re-awaken talks of Provincial forces, a Federal government RCMP/FBI, and regional police forces. 

 It could also mean– dare it be said,  “cutbacks”. 

For the younger RCMP officers, just like their Vancouver counterparts, their future may be the new Surrey PD, the same group recently lampooned by the Mountie union.

The next 12 months will be telling. The Mounties will build their case, no doubt continually underlining their current standing in the police universe and equally predictable, will be arguing “public safety”; striving for that instant 17% increase.

But, if you were gambling on the bet of a substantial RCMP raise, an odds maker may be telling you to now to “take the under”.

Photo Courtesy of Eric Flexyourhead via Flickr Commons – Some Rights Reserved

Historical Unsolved Homicides…the value of the past…….

Hundreds of bankers boxes– dusty, worn and frayed at the edges, worn down by the weight of other boxes stacked on top, often damp in the corners, all lodged in inconspicuous backroom places. Out of sight and mostly out of mind, they are spread throughout this Province and the other Provinces; the responsibility of the RCMP, the OPP, the QPP and various scattered Municipal agencies. Historical mysteries sitting, undisturbed, and now in danger of being lost forever. 

Each box has scrawled on it in black marker, a number the start of which indicates the year of the file box being created; 73-1234 or 98-5678 indicating 1973 and 1998. Most will have a surname, also written on the outside of the box, underneath the number, the first indication of the box containing information on a life lived and in all likelihood a life taken abruptly away. A snapshot of a moment in time, life stories, lives abruptly ended. 

If one lifts the uniformly folded cardboard lids and peek inside one finds manila folders, each folder containing assorted government styled papers, each folder numbered, implying some form of organization. The order of importance often seems haphazard. There will be original documents, photocopies, carbon copies, compact discs, floppy discs, even blueprints and loosely bound photographs.  Each document part of a whole, each pointing to a dramatic and often gruesome ending to a life. 

Shoved into these boxes will be exhibits, exhibit reports, and boxes of 3 x 5  index cards, clues as to the relevance of the folders. Sometimes there are many of these boxes, with this same name, or number; the more numerous the boxes the more likely that this was a long case, or a more complicated case, or a case involving more than one person. The breadth and depth of the case in direct correlation to the weight and the number of  volumes. 

In police parlance these are “dormant” cases. Technically “open” or “still under investigation” as the police like to intone when asked; but they are in a deep state of slumber, never to be awoken unless something out of the ordinary occurs. Maybe a dictated annual review, which is usually sporadicly enforced, will sometimes force a reluctant officer to pull the case from the storage room, check the final pages for any “new” information and generally meander through the boxes.

Then, under most circumstances the boxes get put back, back into the darkened rooms, a single page added indicating that there has been no change in the contained information.  Some boxes may be difficult to even find.  

The paper or original information in these boxes is now being lost, inexorably beaten up by time itself and inadequate physical storage.  They all contain the most intimate of stories, real stories of people, their backgrounds, their lifestyles and their fates.  Some of the people in these boxes have prematurely met the ultimate fate, their deaths by a variety of methods only limited by the depravity and the darkness of the human spirit. Long gone to the eyes of the original investigators, but probably not forgotten. Every old investigator cognizant of the one that got away. 

They have not been solved, the killer remains free in the world, unless time and circumstances has also caught up with them as well. 

If one believes that history, or that records of the past are important,  or that every effort should be made to solve any murder, then you may be interested in this story. For this is a story of a largely ignored problem by the RCMP and other Municipal forces and the single attempt at a proposed solution, one which proved ultimately futile. 

This is a story of a need to archive and preserve police files.  It admittedly has never been fashionable to be interested in the library sciences, or the  similar but more current world of digital archiving.  It conjures up images of dusty books, microfiche and bespectacled introspective librarians, lonely figures confined to being the keepers of untold secrets. 

This is not to say that there is not public interest in unsolved homicides; one can tune into the many Netflix docs, the CBC, read Wikipedia, or the Vancouver Sun and find stories of historical murders, served up in some form of sensationalist fashion. The RCMP post pictures of historical victims and the Coroners office publicly maps out found remains cases. Unfortunately, this is mainly public fodder and a needle in the haystack in terms of trying to solve some of these cases, designed more to entice the reader or the watcher, designed for instagram investigators, not a serious study of this dark world nor a studied attempt to make a dent in the growing pile of the unsolved.   

There is an actual need for a concentrated effort to preserve, to digitize these paper files, to capture forever the information that could be lost to deterioration and neglect. 

In this Province and for most other parts of Canada, there is a relatively short historical period of time which is of primary concern. This is mainly the period from 1960 to 2003,  the dominant ages of the paper files in this relatively new country.

In general, around 2003 many police agencies slowly began to go to electronic formats, although it varies by jurisdiction. The paper format was gradually replaced, electronic data finally being made acceptable as a possible original document pushed by the quickly developing technical advancements.

It is somewhat ironic to understand that the paper age has an actual shelf life longer than the digital age, with experts estimating that paper, if properly preserved, has a life of about 50-100 years. (In our now digital storage era, the shelf life of electronic documents is only 10-20 years. Some think that since the newer material has been electronically filed it will last in perpetuity– a largely false belief.) 

However, now the paper files are of the most immediate concern. They are   reaching the end of their shelf lives, the ink is beginning to fade, the photos are beginning to deteriorate and the memories of the investigators are becoming faulty. 

The numbers of unsolved homicide files that are on “paper” in this Province are somewhat daunting. In 2016, when this blogger began to look at this issue, there were 900-1300 unsolved homicides held by the RCMP in the Province of British Columbia alone. There was another 200-300 which would be the responsibility of the Municipal Forces and there is no evidence to suggest that those Municipal agencies have been any better than the RCMP in their preservation. If one draws this issue outward, on a national basis, the situation would be magnified by 10 times. 

In British Columbia and in the Lower Mainland, since the birth of the Integrated Homicide and Investigation Team, they alone have generated at least another additional  300 “unsolved homicides”.  To be sure, those files are being captured in an electronic format, but not a format that is in a consistent with other agencies, nor are they in a position to be integrated and compared to other similar data bases. So the problem of being able to archive and preserve all information, on a fundamental basis, is growing every year. Solvency rates are also declining– further exasperating the issue. 

The police agencies are rarely asked about this archiving problem, but on that rare occasion that they are, the blame is usually placed on the constantly shifting policing priorities and jurisdictions. It simply has not been operational priority. 

Even if reviewed, there is no digitization of the file, so the only electronic reference to this file may be a name or a file number. The contents are not available to investigators without fully and physically reviewing the paper file. If an investigator feels an ongoing investigation may have some relevance to a historical file, whether it be a suspect or some other circumstance, they would need to go back and physically review the entire file, maybe on just a chance of finding some opaque reference. 

There is no cross-pollination of the information contained in those files, none of the more recent files can see or compare information on their files to older investigations.

The police agencies have a public relations mantra which is that no file is ever “closed” without it being solved. Technically they are right in their assertions, they don’t put a big “CH” (Concluded Here) on the file, but they are being totally misleading. They are trying to generate the impression that they are active and constructively reviewing and comparing these files on a regular basis. That is not true.

They are not digitizing these older files, and they are not actively investigating these files.  The only salvation for police management is that the public simply doesn’t know; the public assume wrongly, that all police files are instantly and readily available to all homicide investigators. 

There is one exception in this Province in terms of units re-investigating historical files in the RCMP. That is the Unsolved Homicide Unit of about 10-20 officers who review old files and selectively work historic files. Sounds good, but one needs to consider that each team in the group, may only take a new file every 8 months or so.

The other bit of sleight of hand is that the Unsolved Unit actually re-investigates only the “solved files”; files where a suspect has actually been already identified, but where for some reason the file was not being worked. It is hard to explain, but the fact is there are many files that have already identified suspects, but for one reason or another have been neglected. These files alone keep this unit busy and it only makes sense in terms of productivity to go for the low hanging fruit. 

Now if you optimistically assume that this group does 3-5 files per year, you can easily do the math and see the finger in the dyke problem here.  There is no way to catch up or even make a dent in the pile. It is not for lack of effort by this relatively small unit, it is just a matter of numbers. 

 

https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/85-002-x/2018001/article/54980-eng.htm

The preservation of historic information is finally being recognized in various forms throughout the rest of society as various organizations are striving to cope with this growing issue.

Interestingly, some locations are actually using police inspired methods to try and solve their respective archiving problems.

At Harvard University they are in the process of trying to develop an operating system for capturing their paper and digital archives using workflow modelled after “police forensic standards”. The idea is to “create, authenticate, unimpeachable source data….” at a standard that would make the archive “suitable as evidence in a criminal trial”. Now, if capturing hundreds of homicide investigations seems to be a difficult task, Harvard is attempting to go back 375 years of history.

The problems they are encountering are similar to the police issues; files with floppy discs, zip drives, tapes, and cassettes. So they are not only capturing the information, they are also preserving the techniques that are needed to retrieve that data.

In California, in a former San Francisco Church, Brewster Kahle continues with the goal he started with in the 1990’s, which was to curate and create an “Internet Archive”. His lofty goal? To save all the world’s information.

Even to the pessimist he has been quite successful: 435 billion web pages have been preserved, 7 million books, 2.1 million audio recordings, and 1.8 million videos have been preserved and digitized, and now accessible to the Public. This archive draws 2-3 million visitors daily.

This is to say that although the archiving and digitizing of police homicide files seems both time consuming and manpower intensive, it is doable. It pales in comparison to these more ambitious projects and one would think that the goal of preserving these investigations and their contents dealing with the most heinous of crimes should be a laudable goal. But so far neither the police, or their respective government administrations, feel that is part of their duty or responsibility.

Which leads me to the more personal and subjective 2nd half of this story.

For two years, the writer of this blog, along with a couple of associates joined with the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University, the Institute of Canadian Urban Research Studies (ICURS) and the School of Applied Science in a proposal on a non-profit basis to digitally archive these old historic homicide files.

It was supported by many people including the former RCMP head of E Division, a former VP and CIO for BC Hydro, the Dean of the school of Applied Science, and the School of Criminology at SFU.

Without going into all the details, the business plan outlined the logistics of locating files and moving them to a secure facility where the paper files would be reviewed, scanned, and converted to a digital format, one that would eventually be shared by all those participating. The reviewing would be done by PHD students in combination with the departments of Applied Science. SFU was motivated by being able to have access to a vast database for research purposes and the hands on review would give students ideas for that research.

There were many hurdles to overcome, as one would guess; security clearances, privacy issues, physical security issues, evidence chains, research controls and results, database construction, expert and standards of review, personnel, exhibit issues, and photo issues.

This is just to name a few of the problems, but over a two year period, these questions were for the most part answered and a proposal was put forward to the RCMP and the Vancouver City Police.

Initially the RCMP expressed interest, each meeting leading to a few more questions on how the operation will be housed and how it will work. Budget issues often came up (we estimated that it would take a financial commitment of 1/2 of 1% of the RCMP E Division Policing budget) The biggest concern of course, was the RCMP turning over, at least temporarily, unsolved homicide investigations to an outside party, even though they would have the appropriate security clearances. At one time they even proposed the possibility of giving up space inside their HQ at Green Timbers to get around this continuity issue.

The possible expandability of this proposal was obvious. Other Municipal agencies, other Provinces, and in a utopia, a database of all unsolved homicide files in the country. One could also bring in the solved files, as they too could have links to other investigations and be of great value.

Of course all the information would be owned by the agencies themselves, and throughout there would be oversight by those same police agencies.

“Digital 229” was the Project name and it was a non-profit enterprise. No one involved was paid during this two year period, all the extra effort was put in on a volunteer basis.

So what happened?

It was a surprise to some, but not a surprise to others who felt all along that the RCMP would have a difficult time ever climbing out of the proverbial operational “box”, the inability to go against the way it was always done.

There is no clear answer as to why the idea died. In the end, we were not given a reason which made any sense. It was un-ceremonious to say the least, as we only heard through the grapevine that negotiations had been terminated; nobody made any direct contact with any of the parties involved.

After many attempted phone connections to re-ignite the business plan, an Inspector (who had not ever been involved in the process) wrote to us and gave up an excuse over needing “sole source funding”, which had also been previously addressed, as the reason of not going forward.

Was this the real reason? We don’t think so. It was clear this officer was directed to kill the project at the direction of some higher ups and to come up with some justification for it.

At one of the original meetings with the heads of the E Division RCMP one officer said he had one question. “What if you guys uncover a number of files that need further investigation?” In other words, if this process we proposed actually assisted in solving some files or pointing to possible suspects, where would they find the resources to re-investigate them?

I’ll admit to being slightly dumbfounded, the question seemed to indicate that the police were concerned about the actual solving of homicides. This was a through the looking-glass moment, a parallel reality where the police were actually more concerned about political administrative repercussions more than the actual solving of cases.

But, so ended an extensive effort to address the unsolved homicides in this Province.

It was and is disappointing of course. What we clearly lacked was a political incentive, one fired up by government.

A few years ago in 2010, the National Inquiry into Missing and Indigenous Women was announced. Their mandate in particular was to dig into the police handling of these Indigenous files. Sources tell me that E Division quickly found a number of officers to travel the Province and review all of these files, clearly in the hope that there would be no problems uncovered.

Of course, they reviewed all these files and then wrote a report, but we have been told they were not converted to digital files.

The RCMP had no problem funding these specific reviews nor in finding the personnel to conduct the inquiries.

So while you routinely watch Netflix, or tune in to CBC True Detective, and assume the mantel of being the next Columbo, one should realize there is a far better way of actually impacting this problem. Less dramatic for sure, but truly effective.

They are currently ignoring the history and one knows what happens when you ignore history.

So the files sit in the boxes, languishing in the file rooms, all in need of a boring librarian. We can see them and touch them, they are contained, but they are hidden from view. The veil of secrecy enshrouds them, protecting them from public scrutiny.

It would seem that at the very least it is owed to the families who have been touched in the most profound way possible. We need to preserve their stories. And maybe, just maybe, give them actual hope. A concentrated and earnest academic effort is needed to make this possible.

As to the suspects, the criminals who killed and remain unaccountable–maybe it’s time for that slogan from history to be resurrected, you know the one, the one where the Mounties “always get their man”.

After all, the past causes the present and so the future.

Photo courtesy of the kirbster via Flickr Commons – Some rights reserved