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The former mayoral hopeful, along with police officers and community leaders, aim to bring ‘meaningful change’ to policing and to the force’s budget (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
The former mayoral hopeful, along with police officers and community leaders, aim to bring ‘meaningful change’ to policing and to the force’s budget (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Time for action on police reform, not more studies, David Soknacki says Add to ...

When David Soknacki was first contacted by the mayor’s office near the end of last year about sitting on a task force to tackle police reform and rein in the Toronto force’s ballooning $1-billion budget, he said no thanks. When Mayor John Tory called again last week, his answer was more or less the same.

“I said I would think about it, which was a polite way of saying no,” said Mr. Soknacki, the businessman and former Scarborough city councillor who dropped out of the race for mayor in 2014.

Mr. Soknacki, who despite his fiscal conservatism served as budget chief in the first term of left-leaning mayor David Miller, said he simply did not feel that Mr. Tory or Toronto Police Services Board chairman Andy Pringle were serious about their commitment to radical change at the police force.

However, after subsequent conversations, he decided to take the pair’s assurances at “face value.”

Chief Mark Saunders has joined Mr. Tory and Mr. Pringle in saying he is ready to reform policing in Toronto.

This week, days before a last-ditch move by some city councillors to flatline the police budget failed, the mayor’s office announced that Mr. Soknacki, former auditor-general Jeff Griffiths and four other community and business leaders, as well as six senior police officers, would be sitting on a “transformation task force” aimed at bringing “meaningful change” to policing and to a budget that has skyrocketed despite a plunge in crime.

The reform effort – which follows years of foot-dragging on modernization – comes amid a chorus of calls for major change. Many of the ideas on the table are already out in the open, contained in a KPMG report on police reform released last year that details changes made by other police forces around the world.

Mr. Soknacki said it is time for action. “I believe that we are past the need for additional studies,” he said. “We have USB drives full of studies.”

The task force has a tight timeline: It is supposed to unveil its recommendations in June. But Mr. Soknacki said the time may be ripe. He feels the once-impossible political dynamics around police reform are rapidly changing.

“The fiscal conservative side of our public recognizes that we need a dividend from lower crime. The progressive side of our body politic recognizes that we need to change policing,” Mr. Soknacki said. “So, with this growing mainstream consensus that there needs to be change, it gives me hope that now is the time that we can pull all of these recommendations together.”

Here are some of the ideas the task force is expected to consider:

‘Civilianization’

Cash-strapped police forces around the world have been moving more lower-paid employees into support roles that used to be filled by sworn police officers but don’t require the skills of a full-blown police officer.

According to KPMG, in San Francisco, 16 civilians were hired to focus on property crime, freeing up uniformed officers to handle more serious offences. Police in Edmonton and Waterloo use “mixed civilian and sworn officers” for crime scene investigations. Denver police planned to hire 40 civilians, the report says, to make cold calls and take phone reports. In Chicago, the city’s inspector-general’s office recommended “civilianizing” hundreds of jobs to save up to $16.6-million (U.S.).

Forensics, back office and other support roles could all be done by civilian staff, the report says. Court security and parking enforcement could be outsourced, the report says, or run by another city agency. More civilians should also be involved in training police in order to shave costs, the report says, and police-car maintenance could be outsourced.

Security consultant David Hyde said police in Britain and even the United States have made massive progress in civilianization, but in Toronto, few have dared to challenge the police union’s objections: “No one is suggesting in this debate … that we should cut the police numbers in half, or we should private security ‘mall cops’ patrolling around our streets. And that’s unfortunately what gets touted by the union.”

New technology

In Halton Region, police use a global-positioning satellite system in their cruisers that allows dispatchers to locate the nearest police to a 911 call. Forces in the United States and Britain use similar systems.

A system called Track My Crime allows victims in Western Australia and Britain to check on the status of their investigation and communicate with police.

In Seattle, police use a system that plots 911 calls on a map in real time to help police better deploy resources. In Tampa, Fla., police use an app called Safe-Cop that allows officers to map locations and post information about a crime to a blog for other officers on duty.

KPMG says Toronto Police need to do a better job of using technology to catch criminals and prevent crime.

Big data

Toronto needs to adopt “intelligence-led demand management,” or better collect and use data so that “officers and staff are on at the right times, in the right places, and with the right skills to better meet community need,” the KPMG report says.

Toronto Police, currently respond to a high number of non-emergency calls. For example, the report says, 12 per cent of calls in 2013 were classified as “private parking complaints.”

Other forces have rationalized their response systems in order to avoid sending so many officers to non-emergency calls. In Britain, the Greater Manchester Police implemented better “demand management” in its communications centre and was able to divert 40 per cent of all calls using “alternate response methods,” the KPMG report says. In Peel Region, a police review recommended bringing in an online reporting system for minor crimes such as “shop thefts, chronic missing persons, minor mischief, lost property and theft from vehicles.”

Human resources

The KPMG report raises concerns that Toronto Police are overstaffing in certain areas.

Among the changes floated over years have been proposals to remove the overlap in shifts that results in the city paying for 28 hours of police work every day instead of 24.

There have also been also calls for the end to a rule that mandates two police officers in every cruiser after 4 p.m. Both would require tough talks with the Toronto Police Association and changes to its collective agreement.

Former Toronto mayor John Sewell, who speaks for a group called the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition, said these personnel changes alone are long overdue: “It’s a staggering way to spend money.”

Editor's note: A previous version of this story mistakenly said that a report on police reforms suggested that the jobs of Toronto's parking and security officers could be done by civilians. They already are. The report in fact suggests they could be outsourced or controlled by another city agency.

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Follow on Twitter: @jeffreybgray

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