The battle lines over the police budget have been drawn, with Chief Bill Blair warning the safety of the city is at risk if he cannot hire officers, while the mayor’s point man on the file countered that the force isn’t taking the need for austerity seriously enough.
Two months ago, Rob Ford’s administration directed police to keep 2013 spending at the same level as this year. Because officers are scheduled to get a 3 per cent pay raise as part of their collective agreement, the force must make cuts to meet that target.
But on Monday, Chief Blair told the civilian board that governs the police service he wants to lift a two-year-old hiring freeze. Since the freeze was enacted, the force has lost about 200 officers through retirements and resignations, bringing total strength down to 5,400. The chief said he doesn’t want that number to fall any further.
He evoked the spectre of the Danzig Street shooting this summer, when two innocent bystanders were killed in the crossfire of a gun battle at a block party. Following that incident, police worked overtime to increase patrols, leading to a dramatic drop in crime. The chief also suggested police stations might have to be closed as a cost-cutting measure.
“There is a point at which we don’t have enough police officers to do the jobs that need to get done,” he said. “When we don’t have enough police officers, our ability to keep those communities safe can be affected.”
If the chief is not allowed to resume hiring, Toronto Police Association president Michael McCormack said the total strength of the force would fall by another 175 officers by next summer. Councillor Michael Thompson, the vice-chair of the board and a member of Mr. Ford’s inner circle, challenged Chief Blair’s assertions. In an era of falling crime rates, he said, the city should be willing to take a harder look at the number of police required.
“It isn’t about fear-mongering, and if you address the issue about the numbers, [it isn’t]that people are going to be unsafe in the city,” he said. Later, he added that the force had a full year to consider cuts, but that much of this work seemed to be coming at the last minute.
“We can’t continue to play this game,” Mr. Thompson said.
Budget decisions will likely have to be made before the end of the year. Whether the board will side with the chief or Mr. Thompson is not yet clear. Toronto Police Services Board chair Alok Mukherjee was circumspect, saying only that the board had not made any decision about whether it agrees with Chief Blair’s 5,400 benchmark as the minimum needed to police the city.
The force has, however, found some efficiencies. Booking duties traditionally performed by officers are being taken over by court staff, which Chief Blair estimates will save about $2.5-million every year. The service is also looking at sharing some administrative functions with other city agencies and is in the middle of a process, along with the officers’ union, to decide whether there is police work that could be done by civilians.
“Nothing is off the table in these reviews,” said Mr. McCormack, who argued that finding efficiencies doesn’t necessarily have to entail cutting jobs.
The police budget is the largest single item on the city’s ledgers and has grown consistently over the years, largely as a result of raises over the level of inflation. Last year, city hall asked police for a 10 per cent budget reduction. The service, however, chopped spending by less than half that, with the understanding further reductions would be made this year.