Policing in Canada vs Policing in the USA

Policing in Canada vs Policing in the USA
Policing in Canada vs Policing in the USA

Being a Commonwealth country, Canada has adopted a community-based policing strategy that has more in common with its British and Australian counterparts than with American policing tactics, especially when it comes to large cities.

The reasons for these differences between the Canadian approach and the American are not as simple as you might imagine, but they have clear implications for the ability of police organizations from both countries to learn from one another.

What Is the Difference Between American and Canadian Police?

The biggest difference between American and Canadian police is that Canadian police enact the single Canadian federal criminal code, whereas in the United States different states have their own criminal code, which in some cases differs from the American federal criminal code. In Canada the enforcement of the federal criminal code is the same throughout all provinces and territories. Therefore police training, police practices, and investigative policies are standardized regardless of a police officer’s location in the country.

The Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) is the single data point that serves every police service across Canada. This national database provides police officers with information on criminal activity and criminals at any moment, regardless of where they are. In the U.S., different data is provided by state, federal, or municipal police information systems.

Another difference between U.S. and Canadian police is that police in Canada are public servants, whereas in the U.S. police chiefs can be elected. In Canada, financing of the police services is made possible by taxes that are collected federally, provincially, and municipally. The revenues from Canadian fines and tickets are returned to the respective jurisdiction and do not finance police services. In the U.S. revenues from tickets sometimes finances corrections and police services.

What Do Canadians Think Overall?
Did you know that almost 67% of Canadians think police do a good job of ensuring neighbourhood safety?
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Defining the Role of the Police in a Community

One of the small-yet-important details that often goes overlooked when comparing Canadian and American police organizations is what those organizations are actually called in day-to-day speech. Americans are used to hearing about a "police force" being called out to deal with an emergency, catch a robber or track a suspect. Canadians, however, are protected by a "police service." This tiny difference, of a single word, is enough to show how the philosophy psychology of the entire institution operates from the ground up.

Canadians often point to a single major difference between our two cultures as a starting point: Guns are far more easily available in the United States than in Canada. This environment leads to a tense situation for any police officer, no matter how polite he or she may wish to appear.

A cbc.ca article describes how a former Canadian, Luann Pannell, has become the director of training for the Los Angeles Police Department. “"I think in Canada there is a lot of emphasis on community and I think at heart we really do want to serve the community,” she indicated. The LAPD, has historically tended to focus on individual classwork and compartmentalized protocol to train recruits. As of 2015, however, the LAPD has begun to reform its training strategy to focus more on developing and instilling community values in its officers through realistic team-based problem-solving scenarios.

Size and Structure

One of the most basic differences between Canada and the U.S. is the sheer number of different law enforcement agencies. In Canada there are less than 235 police services, while in the U.S. there are 18,000 policing agencies for a country that is only 10 times greater than Canada in terms of population size. There is also no American equivalent of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Another significant difference is how policing organizations are monitored and structured. For example, civilian oversight plays a significant role in Canada. In Halifax, for example, a police shooting is investigated by the Serious Incident Response Team, and residents can make complaints straight to an independent commissioner. In the U.S., civilian oversight can vary greatly from town to town or county to county. In many instances, it is close to non-existent except for perhaps a pension oversight board.

Use of Force

The use of lethal force in the U.S. far outstrips Canada. Adjusting for population differences, the police in the U.S. use lethal force about six times as often as Canadian officers. In raw numbers, between 1990 and 2014 there were 376 fatal police shootings in Canada. In 2015 alone in the U.S. there were at least 987. However, the U.S. number is likely higher because of the number of police agencies (18,000) and the fact there is no federal national tracking of police shootings in the U.S.

For More Information

Wilfrid Laurier University offers a fully online BA in Policing program. The coursework is accessible to you online – 24-hours a day, seven days a week. It covers a wide range of topics such as  law enforcement program development, implementation and evaluation. To find out more about this program contact Wilfrid Laurier University.

Read FAQs about the Bachelor of Arts in Policing Program and The Importance of Diversity in Policing.