According to Saint John’s service-based budget, the city’s police department will require $22.5 million this year in general funding. Salaries and benefits make up the largest part – more than $18 million – and the union’s contract prohibits layoffs, a clause that makes it difficult to restrain rising costs. Police also want the city to build a $28-million new headquarters. This has provoked a months-long civic discussion on value in policing.

Citizens want the force to be more productive, as measured by such indicators as community policing, deterring crime through greater visibility and solving crimes. Increasing productivity doesn’t necessarily require more manpower, higher salaries or such amenities as an indoor, lead-free shooting range. It requires effective management of people and resources. That is where council needs to focus the political debate.

Councillors could start by comparing the force to others in the region. The Rothesay Regional Police Force has the highest crime clearance rate in the province and the lowest per-capita cost among forces serving more than 15,000 residents, according to profiling by Statistics Canada. Saint John’s per-capita policing cost has been assessed among the highest in the province in a comparison of 94 municipalities conducted by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies. In that 2009 study, Saint John placed 72nd for the effectiveness of its policing and fire services, based on crime rates and property losses.

If these figures don’t move councillors to seek greater value for money from protective services, perhaps they should look to the municipality that most closely resembles Saint John. In Moncton, taxpayers contribute to the regional Codiac RCMP, which serves a combined population of about 100,000 with 147 officers. Saint John taxpayers support a force of 166 officers, policing a population of roughly 68,000 residents.

Making Saint John’s police force the best in the province is not a matter of throwing the most money at it, but of making it work efficiently. It shouldn’t be difficult for council to determine what matters more to citizens – building an elaborate edifice named after Sir Robert Peel, the founder of modern policing, or adopting a more efficient policing strategy.