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Toronto Mayor John Tory with chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat, right, during budget meetings at city hall on Feb. 17. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Toronto Mayor John Tory with chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat, right, during budget meetings at city hall on Feb. 17. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Last-minute cuts to Toronto police spending would miss major point Add to ...

Critics of the Toronto police force and its billion-dollar budget cheered a move at city hall to trim millions from police spending. They should hold their applause. Arbitrary eleventh-hour cuts aren’t the way to bring change. What’s needed is deep, thorough and deliberate reform of the way police do their work.

The failed attempt to lop away at the police budget came Wednesday as Toronto city council was voting to approve the 2016 budget. Councillor Michael Thompson, a former police-board member and a frequent critic of the police brass, said that “this organization needs major reform.” The police, he argued, have been under pressure for two decades to reform their practices, “but we have not seen it to date.”

He is half right, at least. Repeated attempts to reform policing have fallen short. Mr. Thompson and his council allies were firing a shot across the bow, trying to show police that they can’t expect to get everything they want at a time when money is scarce and other departments are being asked to tighten their belts. “Enough is enough,” said councillor Joe Cressy. “Enough speeches and reports. I think it’s time to send a message.”

Mayor John Tory countered that making back-of-the-envelope changes to the police budget would be a mistake. Police Chief Mark Saunders was so concerned about the proposed cuts that he came down to City Hall to lobby councillors to reject the idea. In a letter to city councillors, Chief Saunders and police-board chair Andy Pringle argue that this year’s police budget, which calls for a 2.45-per-cent increase over last year’s, has already been approved by the police board, the budget committee and the executive committee.

To make a last-minute cut after the budget has already been through all those hoops would be odd, to say the least. The police further argued that, with so much of their spending tied up in salaries, they have little room to make short-term cuts without taking police off the streets and reducing service.

That doesn’t mean they are ruling out reform. Chief Saunders and Mr. Pringle note that a recent consultants’ report gave them a number of options for trimming costs. A task force, announced this week, will follow up by June with recommendations about how to put reforms in effect. Encouragingly, the task force includes outsiders such as David Soknacki, a former city budget chief and mayoral candidate who has spoken out about police spending, and Jeff Griffiths, the hard-headed former city auditor-general.

We “know that we have to continue to do our part to contain the cost of policing and to modernize the way we do business, not only because we need to keep costs down, but also because we need to enhance and maintain public trust and police legitimacy,” says the letter from Chief Saunders and Mr. Pringle.

It would be easy to dismiss that as the usual blather designed to deflect the pressure the force is feeling and put off any serious change. In fact, the current move for reform of police practices is the most serious in years. With the police budget rising above $1-billion, the drive for reform is gathering momentum.

The mayor is committed to it. Chief Saunders was selected last year in part because he said he was on board with major reforms. As councillor David Shiner said during Wednesday evening’s budget debate, “the Chief should be given a chance.”

Commitment alone isn’t enough, of course. There will still be a struggle down the road about the shape of reform. The police union is already pushing back. The police hierarchy tends to be hidebound. Cutting costs in a service where so much of the budget is determined by fixed contract is not going to be easy. The new task force has its work cut out.

But it didn’t help matters to come in at the end of the budget process with an ill-considered threat to take a knife to police spending. Change should come to the way police spend public money and do their jobs. It just shouldn’t come this way.

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