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Niverville council releases study that informed police decision

·16 min read

Two months ago, Niverville’s town council announced their plan to meet the community’s future policing needs. They say that a new RCMP detachment will be created and staffed by 2023, a decision which council has indicated was made in large part based on the findings of a study they commissioned in 2018 but which until now hasn’t been available to the public.

That only recently changed in the last week. Three years after the study was first presented to council, and after the town made their decision as to what to do with that information, the full text of that report has been released to the public.

The 27-page study was compiled by Rick Hiebert, former police chief for the city of Winkler.

“This study was reviewed extensively by council, weighing the pros and cons of each option,” reads a statement from the town on its website. “A recent announcement informed the public of a RCMP detachment coming to Niverville, to be located in the rear of the Town’s Administration building. The detachment is anticipated to be approximately 3,000 square feet in size and can be easily expanded to 6,000 square feet. Council is looking forward to seeing four members of the RCMP call this detachment their place of work in 2023. Council is cognizant of Niverville’s need for an increase in policing and has been working with the federal branch of the RCMP to bring this new detachment to town. Niverville council is looking forward to an increased RCMP presence in Town in conjunction with the opening of the new detachment in 2023.”

Background

Manitoba communities with a population under 5,000 automatically enter into a policing contract with the RCMP. However, once a town’s population exceeds 5,000, they must choose the policing solution that suits them best.

It is anticipated that when the results of the 2021 census are released in the coming spring, Niverville will be above the 5,000 mark.

The 2018 study was requested by council for two major reasons.

First, there was an uptick in Niverville’s crime rate in 2017, including several violent incidents. This prompted local residents Lindsay Unrau and Barry Piasta to circulate a petition requesting that the town fund a policing study.

Second, council was interested in a study in order to determine how to best serve the community as it approaches and exceeds the benchmark population of 5,000 residents.

Another important detail to keep in mind is that municipalities receive grants from the province to help offset policing costs. In Manitoba, this grant is currently set at just over $112 per resident. At the time of the study’s writing, Niverville’s grant amounted to approximately $518,000.

Of that amount, $200,000 is sent back to Manitoba Justice as per the current policing contract for a community with a population of less than 5,000.

Since the cost of policing is set to increase significantly, the aim of Hiebert’s study was to identify the town’s current needs, and also determine what those needs will be in ten years’ time, based on estimated population growth.

The Current Situation

Niverville is currently policed by the RCMP detachment stationed in St-Pierre-Jolys. Periodically there has been a satellite office in Niverville, but it’s not presently in operation due in large part to the requirement for officers to be bilingual.

In 2017, the town hired a bylaw enforcement officer whose presence, Hiebert indicated in the study, was met with a positive response.

In preparing the report, Hiebert attended meetings with council and the mayor, representatives from the Niverville Elementary School and Niverville Collegiate Institute—at that time, those were the only two schools in town—as well as a representative from the local Citizens on Patrol Program and various members of the community.

Through these interactions, Hiebert found that many residents felt a lack of police presence in Niverville. According to the study, they felt that the existing police presence, and proactive policing, was nearly non-existent within the town.

In the report, Hiebert says that he heard several comments repeatedly—and although some were positive, most were areas of concern. Among these concerns was the feeling that emergency response times are slow, traffic is dangerous, and there is only infrequent communication between schools and the RCMP.

The study adds that another frequent comment is that social media tends to blow safety concerns out of proportion. Yet another is that residents want more follow-up in the aftermath of crimes so they know whether those crimes have been solved or addressed.

The Future Situation

The report contains little information about Niverville’s future policing needs except to point out that the needs will inevitably grow, especially if the population continues its rapid upward trajectory.

Hiebert recommends putting in place a policing plan as soon as is feasible in order to prepare for this growth.

Next, in the meatiest portion of the study, Hiebert lays out the various options that Niverville should consider as it decides how to address policing needs, as well as the pros and cons of each option.

Options #1–2: The RCMP

The first two options pertain to the continued use of RCMP officers.

Option one involves entering into a Municipal Police Service Agreement (MPSA) with the federal government for RCMP services. With this type of agreement, the town would be responsible for 70 percent of policing costs—until the population reaches 15,000, at which time the town’s portion would rise to 90 percent.

This option would require the construction of a detachment built to RCMP standards, with ongoing maintenance and utilities paid for by the town. Based on Hiebert’s research, he believed this could cost around $10 million.

The town would also be responsible for the cost of hiring support staff.

The main positive Hiebert mentions regarding this option is that officers who go on leave for 30 or more days would either be replaced or have their cost refunded. This places the responsible for officer staffing firmly on the government’s shoulders.

The second option concerns the possibility of entering into a modified MPSA contract with the RCMP. With this option, the town would be responsible to pay for the hiring of two additional police officers with the St-Pierre-Jolys detachment.

This option would be fairly low cost, since the only requirement would be making an annual financial contribution to help cover existing infrastructure.

However, these two officers would remain part of the St. Pierre-Jolys detachment and be sent wherever they were needed on a priority basis.

Hiebert points out that this would probably not much improve the police presence in Niverville, as the officers wouldn’t be dedicated solely to servicing the town.

Neither of the two RCMP options include the enforcement of local bylaws, so the cost of a bylaw enforcement officer would continue to be an extra expense.

Option #3: Municipal Police Service

A third option outlined by Hiebert is for Niverville to establish its own municipal police service. The province’s $112 per resident grant would continue to apply, but the town would be responsible to cover all costs above and beyond that figure.

A Niverville police force would be dedicated to the town alone—and according to the report, there would be many benefits to this option.

Firstly, a local police board would be created. A local board works to direct the police chief so the force is unique to the needs of the community which it serves.

Other positives include increased police visibility and decreased response time. Officers working for local forces often stay with that force for their entire career, which Hiebert identifies as a significant benefit.

Hiebert also mentions that even if a force is small, a limited number of officers can easily provide 20 hours of coverage in the town they serve. Municipal police services also enforce local bylaws, so there would be no need to hire bylaw enforcement officers.

For Niverville, Hiebert conceptualizes an office with five officers with an annual operating budget of approximately $575,000.

When the results of the 2021 census are released, the town is estimated to hit a population of 5,760. The province’s policing grant, approximately $645,120 in that scenario, would therefore cover the entire annual operating budget.

Hiebert addresses several other pros to having a local police force.

“Only a police service that is dedicated to just one community can afford the time for the level of proactive work that I recommend,” Hiebert writes.

There are, of course, also drawbacks to having a municipal police force.

The first is related to budget. Budget issues can become a problem in the case of unexpected equipment failure, for example. Also, the one-time startup costs of launching a new force could be prohibitive.

There is also the potential for staffing problems. If a staff member takes a leave of absence, it can be difficult to cover their absence. It can also take a long time to replace an officer who leaves unexpectedly.

Option #4: Regional Police Service

The fourth option would involve two or more municipalities jointly operating a regional police service. Hiebert discards this idea early on due to its prohibitive cost.

Such a force, he establishes, would not qualify for any policing grant from the province. Neither Niverville nor its municipal neighbours would be likely to take on the full weight of operating a regional police service.

Option #5: Contracting Another Force

A fifth option would be to contract the services of another municipality’s police force to work within Niverville. The only practical opportunity to enter into such an agreement, Hiebert says, would be to cooperate with the Ste. Anne Police Department.

Logistically, Hiebert suggests that this option isn’t feasible.

For one thing, Ste. Anne is a smaller community than Niverville, so servicing Niverville could end up eating up more than its fair share of the force’s operations.

For another, one of the chief concerns of residents is the slow response time for officers coming from St. Pierre-Jolys. Ste. Anne is even further away from Niverville than St. Pierre, so at best this would seem to be a lateral move.

Option #6: Community Safety Officers

The sixth option involves the hiring of Community Safety Officers (CSOs). CSOs are given the authority to enforce specific laws. For example, they can enforce stationary vehicular laws but not moving violations. They can also enforce local bylaws, conduct patrols around town, and generally enhance community safety.

CSOs are contracted by Manitoba Justice but are employees of the municipalities in which they serve. The municipality pays for their services.

Hiebert points out that he believes CSOs are a better choice in general than bylaw enforcement officers, since the annual cost is similar for both but CSOs have significantly more authority.

Option #7: Auxiliar Volunteers

The last option Hiebert lays out is the use of auxiliaries. These are volunteers who have no actual authority to enforce laws.

That said, Hiebert feels they can still be useful. Auxiliaries provide a visible patrol and general assistance to police officers. They can ride along with officers on patrol as well as provide added security.

However, auxiliaries cannot engage with an offender in any way.

Since auxiliaries could be mistaken for police officers, they could be at risk of injury while on patrol. Hiebert sees this as a significant issue due to the potential for liability on the part of the municipality.

Police Force Case Studies

The study then points to several communities in southeastern Manitoba that have chosen to operate their own municipal police services. Hiebert lists those communities along with their approximate operating costs.

The Town of Altona, population 4,212, employs eight police officers, one civilian support person, and three patrol cars. Their annual operating budget is $926,000, or $219 per person. They also have a contract with the Village of Plum Coulee to provide full policing services to their community at an annual cost of $126,300.

The Town of Ste Anne has a population of 2,114 and a staff of five full-time officers, one part-time officer, one civilian support person, a team of up to 25 auxiliaries, and three patrol cars. They operate with an annual budget of $567,000, or $268 per person.

As there are no holding cells in Ste. Anne, prisoners must be taken to the Steinbach RCMP detachment. The Ste. Anne Police Department then pays for the guards needed to watch over their own prisoners.

Rivers is an unincorporated community in the RM of Riverdale. They have a combined population of 2,100 who are policed by the Rivers Police Service, which has four full-time officers, three part-time officers, seven auxiliaries, and two patrol vehicles. Their annual operating budget is $430,000, or $204 per person.

The Springfield Police Service is authorized by the province to conduct law enforcement within the RM of Springfield alongside the RCMP. In this instance, the RCMP are the primary police authority and the Springfield Police Service operates as a secondary police service. The local officers are only authorized to enforce traffic laws, bylaws, and other non-criminal offences. The Springfield Police Service employs four full-time officers, one civilian support person, and three police cruisers. Their annual operating budget is $389,000, but in this case Hiebert does not provide a per capita cost.

Looking at the operating budgets of these municipal police services, Hiebert estimates that they pay between $97,250 and $115,750 per officer.

Only Two Options

Based on all the research and statistics laid out by Hiebert’s study, he indicates that he believes there are essentially only two viable options to consider.

“If the decision is made to stay with the RCMP, the combined cost of the next contract together with providing and maintaining accommodation will be significant,” he writes. “Questions about the exact number of police officers, response times, levels of proactive policing programs, etc. would need to be clearly defined.”

He adds that if Niverville chooses to go with the RCMP, he recommends that they consider employing CSOs as well.

The other viable option, Hiebert says, is for Niverville to start its own police force.

“It’s no secret that a number of larger urban centres in Manitoba have actively explored going the direction of establishing their own municipal police services, but in each case it’s the startup costs that are most concerning,” he writes. “The larger a community gets, the more it will cost to make this move. If this is the direction that Niverville feels it needs to go, then the sooner the better.”

What Should Niverville Choose?

For laymen reading the study, the answer to which option should be pursued may seem fairly clear-cut. Hiebert lists multiple towns in southeastern Manitoba of similar size that have successfully created and maintained independent police forces.

Of the various options laid out in the study, Hiebert mentions the largest number of benefits in association with an independent police force while identifying only two operational drawbacks.

The first drawback is dealing with equipment failure. However, he also mentions that the provincial grant is likely to cover the annual budget and even allow for a small surplus. This surplus could theoretically be used to cover emergency costs.

The second drawback is the potential for dealing with staffing shortages. Although a legitimate concern, the point could turn out to be moot since the RCMP, too, are experiencing significant staffing shortages at this time.

The Decision

Before this report was made public, Niverville’s town council announced their ultimate decision: they have opted to create an RCMP detachment, which will be located in the same building as the town’s administrative offices.

This is the first option explored in the police study, and one which Hiebert considers to be viable. There are clear advantages. The RCMP is well-established and employs well-trained officers. And if an officer goes on leave for more than 30 days, the government will replace them or refund the cost of their salary.

Reaction to the Decision

Hiebert does emphasize some issues with this choice. A big issue is response time. One of the consistent complaints by Niverville residents is that the RCMP take too long to respond to calls.

Lindsay Unrau, one of the people who spearheaded the police study petition in 2017, ran for town council in 2014 on a platform that relied heavily on improving the town’s police presence.

Like Hiebert, Unrau consistently hears people raise concerns about the length of time it takes RCMP officers to respond to local calls.

“This [new Niverville] station is not going to be an independently run station that will only manage Niverville’s community,” Unrau pointed out in an interview for another article in The Citizen last month. “It is simply an extension of the St. Pierre dispatch. Therefore, an officer working within Niverville could be as far away as St. Malo when an urgent call comes in for Niverville, depending on the current call volume. There will be four officers stationed in Niverville, but my understanding is that that does not mean that there will be four officers in station all at once. Four officers will rotate shifts so that there will always be at least one officer working at a time. Will one officer be enough, especially if it’s more than certain that they won’t always be in town covering our community? Really, that’s nothing more than what we have currently.”

Guy LeGras, a Niverville resident who has served for 30 years as a federal peace officer, agrees with that assessment.

“In my view, neither town council or the RCMP are being completely accurate in calling the Niverville office a detachment,” says LeGras. “Due to the lack of holding cells, it would be better described as a satellite office, as arrest processing would still have to take place at the St. Pierre detachment, requiring the RCMP member to leave the community rather than process on sight.”

LeGras goes on to cite the example of another community that took a similar path to the one Niverville has chosen to embark on.

“As a previous long-term resident of La Salle, the Headingly RCMP also established an office in that community but subsequently closed that office after a brief period of time,” he says. “The absence of holding cells in that office made it easier to close it and convert it for other commercial purposes. I can say with some accuracy that the existence of that office in no way resulted in an increased police presence or better service delivery.”

Unrau and LeGras both stress that their comments should in no way be taken as a critique of the RCMP. Rather, they only seek to encourage the town to consider all options available to them.

There can be little doubt that Niverville’s town council has given a great deal of thought and study to the policing issue in the three years since Hiebert delivered his report. Whether the town’s decision is the best one for the town, however, remains an exercise left to the individual citizen.

Jennifer Lavin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Niverville Citizen

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