The business of policing in Nelson could be going up in the new year.
Citing rising calls for service, steady population growth in the Heritage city and an understaffed Nelson Police Department (NPD) roster of constables, the city’s top cop stepped up to the city council bar and asked for more.
Chief constable Donovan Fisher submitted the annual NPD ask to city council during its last committee-of-the-whole meeting in council chambers, looking for an increase to the 2022 police budget of $293,227, bumping the total to just over $4 million ($4,042,173).
Most of the budget — and the increase — is taken up by salaries of the NPD, said Fisher.
“As is the case with a lot of businesses, the expenses and cost really revolve around the human resource part of the business, and the police service is no exception to that,” he said.
The financial value of policing to the community has remained pretty consistent for the last 10 years, Fisher explained, with the city handing over an average of 18 per cent of its overall budget — last year it was 19.1 per cent — to support the NPD service.
“So, (the budget) was fairly consistent even though the pressures have increased,” he pointed out.
Calls for service have risen in the last few years, as have other demands for police time, and the city has shown sustained growth of around two per cent over the last few years.
Nelson also has one of highest caseloads per police officer in the province, Fisher said, with a higher charges laid and calls for service (per 100,000 population) rate than Vancouver, and more than double the rate of Saanich and Oak Bay, two comparable B.C. communities in size to Nelson.
However, Fisher pointed out that Nelson has one of the lowest police officer to population ratios of municipal police departments in the nation, well below the national average.
All of those factors have contributed to almost 20 per cent of NPD staff having been off work for a significant period in the last year, citing stress and mental health reasons.
“Fatigue and stress continue to contribute to physical injuries and conduct matters,” he said.
Fisher admitted that the police service carries an expensive price tag but, based on what the call volumes were in Nelson — and that the population is projected to continue to rise — to be at average the department should have 22 members, not the 19 it currently has.
Compared to the ratio per capita of officers in Vancouver, Nelson should have 23 members, Fisher said, putting the NPD on par with what the current workload requires.
“But we are certainly happy enough to do it in increments and work on some cost saving measures and partnerships with the community,” to get there, he said.
Coun. Jesse Woodward said the NPD needs to have sustainability in order to counter the effect of lost staff time due to stress of the high workload.
“Do you feel confident this budget is pushing you towards that sustainability that you need to run a department over the next few years?” he asked.
“I am somewhat laying the groundwork for an additional ask of one or two members over the next year or two and I think, given everything being equal and sustained growth in the community … we are looking at one member every two or three years after that,” Fisher replied.
A 2015 provincial report examining the NPD noted the force should have 19 members, while the police force was just achieving that figure in 2021.
But significant increases in demands on the department have underlined the call for more members.
“I think we are going in the right direction, but at the same time I don’t think we are there yet,” said Fisher.
Although the budget won’t be delivered until city council hands down its entire budget early next year, in compliance with the Police Act, the Nelson Police board is required to have an approved provisional police budget for 2022 by November 30, 2021.