Police officers put their lives at risk daily to protect citizens, and the Waterloo Region Police Service says more are needed to keep up with the demands of the community.

The force has asked for an additional $8 million in its budget to hire more officers, because officials say taking minutes longer to respond to a call can make a big difference.

Waterloo Regional Police Sgt. Carl Zintel says "It's not uncommon that citizens do call back, wondering what the response time or what the expected arrival time for a police officer is."

WRPS Chief Matt Torigian says the rising population numbers are a big contributor to the problem, "More people, more development, more business, more demand."

And while statistics show the overall crime rate in the region is falling, Torigian says the severity of violent crimes, the type that requires more resources, is rising.

Currently there are about 800 officers in Waterloo Region, and despite Torigian's requests for more, over the past few years the number approved by the Police Services Board has never quite matched up:

  • 2010: 25 requested, 10 approved
  • 2011: 60 requested, 30 approved
  • 2012: 30 requested, 15 approved

The board also required that the police budget be cut back from its original $125 million, to be small enough to be supported by a maximum tax levy of 1.3 per cent for homeowners, or roughly $21 on the average annual tax bill.

Police Services Board chair Tom Galloway says they are trying to keep the tax increase at or below the rate of inflation.

"In these economic times, even that is a stretch for many people that I've heard from, that they really can't afford very much more, if any more."

The two biggest items in the police budget are employee benefits and wages.

First-class constables earn more than $83,000 annually, for every eight years they stay with the service after that, the salary goes up an additional three per cent.

The salary increase is considered ‘retention pay' and helps prevent officers from leaving for other services.

The increase started with the Toronto Police Service, and became the norm at other forces through contract arbitration.

But the Greater K-W and Ontario Chambers of Commerce suggest that arbitration process should be re-examined.

Len Crispino, president and CEO of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, says "Unless you begin to take some measures to control the growth of that, organizations and municipalities will continue to face some major challenges. Where are they going to get that money? They have to raise taxes."

Since 2005, that pay increase has raised taxes in Waterloo Region.

The Police Services Board says retention pay cost $1.9 million last year, about as much as it would cost to hire 30 more officers.

And for some taxpayers like Jeff Joyce, that's not a good deal, "Sometimes it's too much. They want more than what I think is needed sometimes."

But others like Krysta Mellon say "As long as they can prove that work is being done and the money is going to keep people trained and doing the work that they need to do."

Torigian says that pay is simply about parity with other forces, "A police officer working in our community deserves to be paid the same, or compensated very closely, as you would a police officer in any jurisdiction across Ontario."

Despite the potential for ‘retention pay' some officers are still leaving the service, though it's not clear how long they have worked or why they are leaving.

Bruce Tucker, president of the Waterloo Regional Police Association, says "We had 15 officers resign last year, which is a large number of us. We have an excess of another 30 looking elsewhere."

Tucker adds that the staffing shortage is putting many of the association's members under serious pressure, "We're seeing a significant amount of overtime…We see a lot more stress coming through."

And with more to do and fewer people to do it response times will increase along with the pressure on current officers.

"There's a great burden on them and they're trying to go out and they're to deliver a good level of service…but there's no respite from it," Tucker says.

But relieving the burden on police officers and keeping up with demand may put the burden on taxpayers.

Coming up in part two: What regional council says about the latest police budget and what some say the service should do and has been doing to be more efficient.