Meaford's low crime statistics combined with recent complaints from residents about a lack of police presence on our streets had councillors asking the Grey County OPP Detachment Commander if the municipality is being adequately policed.
Inspector Martin Murray made his quarterly update presentation to council at their October 16 meeting, and the data contained in his report brought seemingly good news. While assaults and sexual assaults are up over the past quarter, other violent crimes are down, property crimes have seen a significant decrease, and drug possession and other drug offences are virtually non-existent. Even impaired driving charges in a county reputed for its collective alcohol issues have decreased when compared to last year. It's true that distracted driving infractions have seen a 74 percent increase over last year, but in the most recent quarter, and perhaps thanks to recent messaging from the OPP and other police services, there was a 67 percent decrease compared to the same period last year.
For any community the data provided is good news, but councillors had some questions for the inspector. Among the other data included in the Inspector's report was the fact that foot patrol hours are down significantly in the last quarter when compared to the same quarter last year. In July, August, and September of 2016, Meaford saw 281.75 officer foot patrol hours compared to just 122 in the same period this year. Overtime hours for officers serving Meaford are also down by nearly 40 percent.
That fact combined with recent complaints from residents had councillors concerned, and they wanted to know if the crime numbers were down due to decreased police presence, or if the statistics simply show the results of effective policing.
When you're spending $1.8 million per year on policing, councillors deserve to, and should, ask questions when the data doesn't make sense.
“Just to clarify, as I'm going through all the charges, and I'm seeing them going down, you're saying that it's not a result of decreased staff hours,” noted Councillor Jaden Calvert.
“Speeding, for example, is down hugely from July to September, yet we are hearing, and I've seen it myself, speeders along specific roads in our downtown core,” noted Mayor Barb Clumpus.
“I think, Inspector, when you leave this engagement this afternoon you're probably going to come away with an overriding thought that has been brought to the attention of most of us on council. The thought is of course that we're not seeing your officers in the town of Meaford and around as much as we used to,” suggested Councillor Tony Bell.
“Our crime rate is down so low that I feel there isn't enough presence. That's my guess, I'm a butcher, not a baker,” noted Councillor Steven Bartley. “I'm getting phone call after phone call from residents that are calling looking for help and not getting it.”
The Inspector assured members of council that the municipality is being adequately policed, and that the municipality is receiving value for the money it is spending given that in addition to standard policing services, Meaford enjoys benefits like having a school resource officer and officers to provide enforcement services for community events.
Like members of council, I have heard from a number of people in the community who feel that in recent months there seems to be less of a police presence in this municipality. On the surface, the drastic reduction in foot patrol hours, along with 40 percent fewer overtime hours, would seem to support that feeling, but policing is a complicated business, and a drop in crime statistics doesn't necessarily mean it's a result of reduced policing hours, just as an increase in crime statistics wouldn't necessarily be due to increased policing. Our councillors however are right to ask the questions, and the Inspector assured council that he would work with them to get them the information they are asking for and to review the hours that officers are patrolling our streets. That said, if a community on the whole feels like they are seeing police less often, that can make people feel less safe in spite of any data contained in a report.
Of all the data contained in the OPP update for this quarter, the most surprising and concerning for me, and I suspect many others, is the drastic reduction this community has seen in foot patrols. That is data provided by the Inspector himself: that is fact. The crime statistics for this municipality have always been low; in some years we've been identified as one of the safest communities in the country, and I don't think we've seen anything to suggest that we are less safe, or that crime is out of hand in this municipality – far from it. But community policing, and the presence of officers in and around the community help build relationships and trust between the community and law enforcement, and it also helps people to feel safe, so it's only right that we the customer through our elected representatives inform our service provider that as a community we've become concerned about what seems to be less policing, but could very well be the result of decades of effective policing.
The lower crime statistics could very well be a result of decreased policing, and council should continue to ask questions of the Inspector until they are satisfied that we're receiving the same level of law enforcement that we've traditionally received.