There’s little direct evidence linking the size of a police force to crime levels, according to some criminologists who voiced skepticism about Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair’s pledge this week to figure out how many officers he needs by late March.
The time frame is “totally inadequate,” said Simon Fraser University criminologist Curt Griffiths, who runs SFU’s Police Studies Program and has conducted an extensive staff deployment study for the Vancouver Police Department. He said such as study has never been done before in Toronto, and a “good operational review” would take a year.
The looming review, which Chief Blair ordered in response to cost-cutting pressure from budget chair Mike Del Grande, won’t start from scratch, the chief said in an interview.
The external consultants hired by the TPS, who have yet to be named, will be asked to answer four questions: Can the force be de-layered, meaning the elimination of one rank? Are there further opportunities to assign civilians to do administrative tasks that don’t require special police training? How many officers should report to each supervisor? And is the organization properly aligned, in terms of the number of personnel assigned to different operational tasks?
The last such assessment was commissioned when Julian Fantino was police chief over 10 years ago. “We want to make sure there’s an appropriate alignment to the demands we’re facing today,” said Chief Blair. But, he conceded, “it’s a difficult question to answer.”
The TPS has an authorized strength of 5,604, but the chief said he’s short 224 officers due to retirement and attrition. Toronto, he added, is “dead centre” among large North American cities in terms of the ratio of police officers to residents.
Yet such ratios are at best imprecise instruments for estimating personnel requirements, say policing experts.
Officials who manage public services such as cancer screening programs, fire departments and even school boards can use performance targets and cost-benefit analyses to figure out desired service levels, and then work backward to gauge staffing needs.
Policing requirements are much more elusive, and depend on many variables including population, geography, and poverty rates, as well as the agency’s corporate culture, its collective agreement and attrition rates.
Staffing, said Chief Blair, also reflects policy outlooks, such as the level of police resources devoted to crime prevention efforts (e.g. the cops in schools program), the results of which are difficult to quantify.
Still, it’s almost impossible to predict what happens to crime rates based on the number of police officers in a given community. “There’s no magic number that puts us over some mythical line that puts us in a state of crime,” said University of Toronto criminologist Anthony Doob, who added that police union threats about the risk of increased crime as a result of staffing reductions are “just plain wrong.”
Prof. Griffiths, however, said it is possible to develop a more precise estimate of what’s need. In his case, his researchers took two years to complete the Vancouver Police Department staffing deployment study in the wake of a highly controversial 2004 request for almost 500 more officers.
He examined a range of variables that the VDP should use to determine the number of officers, including: demand for service during busy periods, such as late on weekend evenings; the proportion of one- or two-officer patrols; and the availability of officers assigned special enforcement units.
As well, Prof. Griffiths’ team looked at how the VPD could improve its response time to emergency 911 calls. In 2004, it took about 11 minutes on average, but as many as 40 per cent of 911 calls received between 3 a.m. and 7 a.m. went unanswered. To bring the response time closer to the “best practice” standard of 7 to 8 minutes, Prof. Griffiths’ study recommended adding 122 officers, well short of the department’s original request.
According to Chief Blair, the TPS’s average emergency response time is “closer to 10 minutes,” although the TPS aims for nine. “I understand that response time is important,” he added. “But it’s not all that we do.”
He cited fraud investigation as an example. “If I had a thousand people working on fraud, I could keep them all busy.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article included incorrect information about the number of officers working for the Toronto Police Service. This online version has been corrected.