OTTAWA — Canadians’ faith in their police has plunged by more than 50 per cent in the past 15 years, and British Columbians have by far, the least confidence among Canadians in local and provincial policing, according to the findings of a new poll.
The survey of a little more than 1,000 Canadians, conducted in late March by Angus Reid Public Opinion, found that roughly four of 10 Canadians have confidence in the RCMP, municipal forces and the provincial police forces in Ontario and in Quebec.
That compares to more than 80 per cent of Canadians who expressed confidence in police in 1997, when pollster Angus Reid first posed the question.
The national figures have been dragged down by respondents in B.C., where the Mounties have experienced a string of public-relations disasters in recent years.
Just 27 per cent of British Columbians polled said they have faith in the RCMP, while only 28 per cent said they have confidence in their municipal police forces. Both figures are the lowest in the country.
Criminologist Neil Boyd at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., cited a string of RCMP failures in B.C. — the bungling over several years of the Robert Pickton serial murder investigation, the accidental Tasering death in 2007 of Robert Dziekanski and more recent sexual harassment allegations by female Mounties against their male counterparts — for the collapse in public faith in police.
“Revelations about the conduct of police officers, especially in British Columbia, have given the RCMP a black eye,” Boyd said.
He pointed out that new RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson, who wasn’t available for an interview Wednesday, has “made it very clear he’s upset with this, and feels the force needs to reinvigorate and respond to these very serious concerns.”
Boyd said the RCMP’s troubles may have influenced the rating of other municipal and regional forces across Canada.
Nationally, municipal police forces have the confidence of 39 per cent of Canadians, while the provincial police forces in Ontario and Quebec have the backing of 44 per cent and 40 per cent of respondents in those provinces, respectfully.
The poll, conducted in March, also looked at broader public attitudes toward justice issues in Canada, the U.S. and Britain.
Attitudes toward police weren’t much different south of the border. Roughly 40 per cent of Americans had confidence in the Federal Bureau of Investigation, 43 per cent in state police forces, 36 per cent in local police, and a dismal 28 per cent for the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Confidence was noticeably lower in Britain, with just 33 per cent having trust in the security and intelligence services (MI-5 and MI-6), 28 per cent for special police forces and 24 per cent for territorial police forces.
The poll also found that 74 per cent of Americans, 68 per cent of Canadians and 56 per cent of Brits welcome the concept of using alternative penalties, such as fines, probation and community service, rather than prison for non-violent offences.
This findings may reflect the pessimistic view of the corrections system. Only about one in five of the respondents in all three countries (20 per cent of Brits, 19 per cent of Canadians and 18 per cent of Americans) feel their prison system is effective in helping inmates become law-abiding citizens.
Boyd said the poll’s findings suggest public disagreement with elements of the Harper government’s recent omnibus crime legislation, which include minimum sentences for non-violent offences, such as drug trafficking involving possession of as few as six marijuana plants.
“Polls are not necessarily telling us that the get-tough agenda on crime is what Canadians want.”
The online poll involved 1,005 Canadians, 1,011 Americans and 2,015 Brits. The error margin was 2.2 percentage points for Britain, and 3.1 per cent for Canada and the U.S.
Among the results:
– The poll found that just eight per cent of Canadians and Americans, and 12 per cent of Brits, feel that crime, violence and gangs represented the biggest problem in their communities.
Respondents in the U.S. and Britain, countries hit far harder by the 2008 global recession, were more likely than Canadians to cite bread-and-butter issues, with 71 per cent of Americans and 67 per cent of Brits naming either “unemployment” or “the economy” as their top concerns.
Just 44 per cent of Canadians mentioned those two issues.
Canadians were vastly more concerned about health care and the state of hospitals, with 31 per cent citing health, compared with 13 per cent of Brits and just seven per cent of Americans.
– Roughly half of Canadians and Brits felt there was “no change” or a “decrease” in community crime, compared with 39 per cent in Canada and 35 per cent in Britain who said they sense an increase. In the U.S., 45 per cent said there was a crime jump.
– Just 27 per cent of Canadians said they fear being a crime victim, compared to 35 per cent of Americans and 39 per cent of Brits.
– Roughly the same number of respondents (13 per cent of Canadians, 12 per cent of Americans) said they’d been a victim of a crime in the past two years that involved the police. In Britain it was 18 per cent.
– While most respondents in all three countries favour alternative penalties for non-violent offenders, that view crumbles on three of four issues specified by the pollster.
Roughly four of five Canadians (78 per cent) don’t think Canadians should go to jail for possessing pot for personal use, compared with 74 per cent of Americans and 70 per cent of Brits. (In fact, very few Canadians convicted of soft drug possession actually serve time, according to Boyd.)
But support for alternative punishments is vastly lower in Canada for those convicted of credit card fraud (37 per cent), drunk driving (31 per cent) and arson (21 per cent). The numbers also plunge for American and British respondents.
– Canadians have slightly higher faith in the justice system, with 61 per cent believing courts do a good job determining guilt, compared with 56 per cent of Brits and 55 per cent of Americans.
And 38 per cent of Canadians say the system treats everyone fairly, compared with 35 per cent in Britain and 28 per cent in the U.S.
Yet, the poll also sent mixed signals, with just 19 per cent of Canadians expressing confidence in criminal courts and 31 per cent in the Supreme Court of Canada.
Albertans were by far, the most skeptical of Canada’s highest court, with just 16 per cent expressing confidence. Quebec was highest at 42 per cent.
Regional comparisons must be viewed with caution, however, as the margin of error is higher due to smaller sample sizes. In Alberta, the Supreme Court question returned an answer of nine per cent; in B.C. it was eight, in Quebec, six and Ontario, five.