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Philip Preville: Does Toronto really need a $1-billion police force?

Philip Preville: The Fat Blue Line

(Image: Blair by Pete Morawski; Police by CP Images)

Zulfiqar Khimani holds the distinction of being Toronto’s most prolific parking enforcement officer. In the last five years he has issued roughly $4 million in fines to drivers parked illegally in Forest Hill and north Toronto. Khimani is also one of the city’s highest-paid parking enforcement officers, having earned $107,585 last year. And he’s not even a real cop; the parking enforcement jobs are staffed by civilians.

Khimani is just one of the thousands of Toronto Police Service employees who earn more than $100,000. Last year, 2,977 of the city’s 5,416 cops earned in the six figures, and most of them did so by racking up overtime hours.

The cost of policing in Toronto has gone up by an astonishing 80 per cent in the last 13 years, far outstripping increases in population, inflation, police personnel and municipal taxes. City hall spends more than a quarter of all its property tax revenues on police, and it has had to starve other city services as a result. The Toronto Police Service has become, after the RCMP, the most expensive law enforcement agency in Canada. Last year’s budget was $1.013 billion, more than the Ontario Provincial Police’s $1.003-billion budget for 2012–13 despite the fact that Toronto has 812 fewer officers than the OPP.

Policing has become to city hall what health care is to Queen’s Park: the service that eats all the money. Despite Mayor Ford’s mission to lower costs, Chief Bill Blair requested a $21-million budget increase last year. The Toronto Police Services Board, the civilian body that governs policing, balked, insisting that police costs be flatlined. When Blair refused, it was forced upon him: he was instructed to restrict new hires, give out no promotions and reduce overtime pay.

In 2011, the board had told Blair to conduct an internal review of all police operations, and to study the feasibility of reducing the uniform complement to 5,100 officers. The objective is no longer merely to flatline the police budget, but to bend the cost curve back down toward earth.

And since salaries make up 89 per cent of Toronto’s police budget (the remainder being used to maintain police stations, purchase uniforms, buy office equipment and keep the cruisers gassed up), the only way to truly rein in the budget is to cut back on the number of cops. It’s well overdue.

Toronto is not alone in its efforts to cut police costs. Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi tried to cut back his city’s police budget last year by a modest 1.5 per cent—only to have his council overrule him and add more officers to the payroll. For more than a decade, police forces have been insulated from the fiscal pressures faced by everyone else in both the public and private sectors. While the rest of us have learned to do more with less, police in Toronto have been doing less with more, increasing their complement of officers and civilian staff to guard a city that is among North America’s safest. Since 2005’s notorious summer of the gun, crime has been declining steadily in nearly every category—break-and-enter, assault, murder. The total number of criminal offences in Toronto dropped from 198,290 in 2007 to 161,385 in 2011.

Local police cannot take all the credit for the decline. Crime is down across North America. Researchers have a million theories to explain it: the pervasive presence of security cameras and home alarm systems, demographic shifts (the boomers, the big surge in our population, are aging), a decline in cocaine use (leading to fewer robberies and less gang-related violence), and even the phasing out of leaded gasoline (lead being a powerful neurotoxin linked to delinquency, violence and reduced IQ). In other words, we have every reason to believe that a Toronto with a few hundred fewer police officers would fare just fine.

Blair insists the problem of cutting costs isn’t entirely his to solve. He has a union to contend with. The current collective agreement (negotiated in 2011 between the Police Association and the board) mandates salary increases of almost three per cent this year and two per cent next year, adding tens of millions to police costs. The agreement also governs such things as how many officers must be in each cruiser after 4 p.m. (two) and even the shift schedule, both of which hamstring Blair’s ability to deploy his force efficiently. As he puts it, “I don’t need the same number of officers on duty on Sunday afternoons as I do on Friday nights.”

Blair is also not responsible for the rules governing overtime pay. Last year, tax­payers shelled out more than $30 million in police overtime. Cops work in shifts, and if an officer is in the middle of chasing down a burglar, he’s not going to stop just because it’s 4 p.m. and he’s supposed to head home. Which makes sense. But 28 per cent of overtime pay goes to officers who attend traffic court, which is surely the easiest way for cops to make extra money. When officers fail to show in traffic court for cases in which they issued tickets, charges are often dismissed. So seven years ago, in an effort to raise the conviction rate, the city promised cops that traffic court time would be scheduled on officers’ days off and paid out as overtime.

To be fair, Blair has taken some small steps to cut back. He trimmed 19 senior management positions in 2011 and civilianized some 65 booking officer jobs in 2012. Earlier this year he proposed expanding the red-light camera program so the cops can take gotcha snapshots of vehicles making illegal left turns—a move that could alleviate gridlock while making smarter use of police resources. That shows the kind of thinking the cops need now: a willingness to adopt new technology and save taxpayer money.

He’ll need to go much further—whether on his own or at his board’s insistence—if he’s to make any real progress. The police have their own payroll department even though the city bureaucracy has a perfectly good one for handling everyone else, including the fire department. It’s time to end that duplication. It’s high time, as well, to consider contracting out court services (transport and security for people in custody) and even the entire parking enforcement operation, just like garbage collection. The city can’t afford to pay $107,585 per year to employees issuing parking tickets, even if they’re real go-getters like Officer Khimani.

Earlier this year, the Toronto Star outsourced its copy editors; surely the cops can do without their parking enforcement unit. If any other profession allowed its invoice to balloon the way the Toronto police have, the client would rightly balk at paying the bill.