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What's the price for law and order? Add to ...

At a time when cash-strapped cities are bringing down austerity measures to rein in spending, police budgets have continued their steady growth, forcing civic leaders to make tough choices between funding law and order and paying for other major services.

Despite declining crime rates, spending on police forces - one of the largest single items on municipal ledgers - has risen 41-per-cent per capita across the country over the last decade for which Statistics Canada numbers are available. Much of that cost is being driven by police raises that consistently top the inflation rate.

The dilemma is stark: Let policing costs continue to rise and governments must make cuts elsewhere - whether road repairs, libraries or parks - to compensate.

"These issues are pretty serious for a city like ours that doesn't have growth in revenue, but has growing costs," said Alok Mukherjee, chair of the Toronto Police Services Board. "If [the rise of policing costs]continues, there will be no choice but to make tradeoffs between paying for police and paying for other services."

Mr. Mukherjee himself is gearing up for what promises to be a tough round of negotiations with the local police union, slated to start later this month and coming on the heels of a year when Toronto's police chief asked for a rise in his force's budget, despite a directive from the city that all departments cut spending.

Other cities, meanwhile, have begun to tackle the problem. Vancouver officials have opened more homeless shelters in a bid to reduce street crime, while police have shaved millions off the budget by delaying hiring new officers. Calgary's police commission cut its proposed spending by $2-million after a new mayor and council determined to hold the line on costs.

"We have to find efficiencies in every department, and police and emergency services are not exempt from that," said Mayor Naheed Nenshi. "It's like water: There are levels of treatment that are appropriate to keep our water safe; there's an appropriate number of police to keep our streets safe."

The savings, however, are a drop in the bucket. What's needed, say experts, policy-makers and some police themselves, is nothing less than a rethinking of the structure of policing in Canada, with some duties handed to civilians and a reorganization of municipal and federal law-enforcement responsibilities.

But the road ahead is not easy.

Police unions argue vociferously against offloading officers' jobs to non-police, while politicians, eager to assuage public concerns about crime and appeal to popular opinion, routinely approve added spending for law enforcement.

Looking to tackle Halifax's crime rate - consistently one of the highest in the country - Mayor Peter Kelly launched a series of community consultations on the subject in 2006. He says the message from his constituents was unequivocal.

"Boots on the streets, boots on the streets, boots on the streets, that's what we heard," he said. "We have hired over 100 more police officers."

Those new recruits helped drive up Halifax's per capita police expenditures by 44 per cent over 10 years.

Every other major city saw an increase in that period, with Toronto's spending growing by 34 per cent; Montreal and Vancouver chalking up rises of 24 per cent and, on the higher end, suburban York Region and Surrey, B.C., marking increases of more than 58 per cent each, fuelled by hiring sprees brought on by population growth.

One of the main reasons for the spikes in costs are the steadily increasing salaries for police officers, who are regularly given raises greater than the rise in the cost of living. Some officers in Edmonton, for instance, got a 4.5-per-cent raise in 2009, despite a local inflation rate that year of less than a percentage point.

When it comes time to negotiate new contracts, police unions and arbitrators look to match or top wages across the country. If one city gives police a generous raise, it drives up settlements in other municipalities.

"They all share their information," said Richard Parent, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University and former police union vice-president. "So what goes on in Toronto goes on in Vancouver."

The legal system also plays a part. In Ontario, for instance, the number of court dates necessary to get through a case has more than doubled since the early 1990s. As police receive as much as a full day's pay for a single court appearance on a day off, even if it lasts just a few minutes, increases in court time translate into growing overtime budgets.

Police, at least anecdotally, also say the amount of time it takes to store and prepare evidence has increased, thanks in part to court rulings that make it necessary to turn over more to the defence and in part to the increase in DNA evidence and video surveillance, which takes more time to process.

When the RCMP, for instance, called unsuccessfully this week for a change in disclosure rules, top brass claimed such regulations had added a 40-per-cent cost to cases since 1991. Measures designed to improve police accountability - the need to submit reports on uses of force, for instance - also add time to the clock, police argue.

"It's not just a police officer with his notebook coming to give testimony any more," said Daryl Fridhandler, a Calgary lawyer who sits on the local police commission.

Municipal politicians also lay much of the blame for rising costs at the feet of the federal government, contending that local forces do work - such as protecting borders and ports, guarding consulates and investigating multi-jurisdictional organized crime - that should fall under federal authority.

"As [the RCMP]has had to deal with bigger-picture issues, you see that things that were once the purview of the national force get sent down to local municipalities," said Berry Vrbanovic, a vice-president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

The FCM has called for the federal government to pay 10 per cent of each municipal force's annual budget.

But the fix to which experts point most readily is organizing policing into tiers, paying people less for performing simpler jobs. This could be accomplished within a force, with officers manning the front desk at a station earning less than those responding to emergencies; it could also entail handing some tasks, such as directing traffic or filling out paperwork, to civilians.

Police unions roundly oppose the idea, arguing that a civilian directing traffic, for instance, can't stop someone from running a red light or issue a ticket for speeding.

"When an officer's directing traffic, he's not just directing traffic. He's also watching for other things," said Mike McCormack, president of the Toronto Police Association.

And in the end, policymakers' skittishness is also a barrier to cutting costs, as officers wield a tremendous amount of moral suasion with the public, benefiting from favourable portrayals in television crime dramas - a media image that has become ever more positive in the wake of 9/11.

"The last thing you want as a politician is to be labelled as anti-police or anti-cop, because people love the police," Mr. Nenshi said. "We're lucky in Calgary that the level of dialogue is better than that, but I can see how politicians would be scared."

However, public support for police may be on shaky ground, at least in the country's largest city, where mass arrests during last June's G20 summit, coupled with Chief Bill Blair's swiftly retracted rebuke of a beaten protester, earned a spate of bad publicity.

"In all my years of living in Toronto and paying attention to police, I've never seen anything quite like it," said criminologist Mariana Valverde, who has studied media portrayals of police. "It's a very rare event."

 

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