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Toronto Police cost over $1-billion a year — and people want to change that Add to ...

Toronto Police cost the city more than a billion dollars a year, and there’s a growing call for radical change

Last year he was the heir apparent, one of the most progressive minds in Canadian policing, the man who would ascend to the chief’s office and drag the Toronto Police Service into the 21st century.

Today, Peter Sloly is unemployed.

To some, the sudden departure of the force’s most prominent, reform-minded voice marks yet another trust-eroding crisis in the recent history of the Toronto Police Service. Starting with the G20 protests and moving through carding, the shooting of Sammy Yatim and the uncontrollable billion-dollar budget – public confidence in the country’s biggest municipal police force is eroding, multiple polls show.

World police trends only buttress this line of thought. The financial crisis has forced departments in the U.S. and Europe to cut costs, while systemic racial profiling and high-profile police killings of civilians have prompted an overhaul in how cops confront civilians. Once considered a model of progressive police thought, Toronto has come to be defined by its resistance to progress. Or so goes public perception.

The way in which Mayor John Tory, his hand-picked chief Mark Saunders and police board chair Andy Pringle tackle the many pressures bearing down on the city’s police force will, in part, define the mayoralty and shape the city’s financially precarious future. All three have staked some part of their reputations on the promise of imminent major reform – with or without Mr. Sloly.

“Over the last four or five years, there has been a lot of talk about change,” said Mr. Pringle, who has helmed the board since Alok Mukherjee stepped down last summer. “Now it’s at the stage where we must act … There hasn’t been the transformational change that is really needed.”

One of the key players determining how the Toronto police force handles the daunting financial and social challenges before it, Mr. Pringle has been deliberately silent in the public conversation over the direction of the force of late. Much of the debate has been dominated by citizen activists on one side and, on the other, Toronto Police Association president Mike McCormack, whose sway appears as strong as ever.

But Mr. Pringle remains confident that a full-scale overhaul of the force is at hand that will help restore its standing among Torontonians. Just don’t expect him to shout that message from the mountaintops.

“Actions and results speak louder than promises,” he told The Globe this week.

At its December meeting, the board heard from three KPMG consultants who presented a $200,000 study that proffers the opportunity for radical change. Early on, it appeared the chief and the board would sweep the report into a dustbin containing numerous other audits of departmental operations conducted over the past five years, but suddenly, at Mr. Pringle’s urging, it was being touted as a call to action. The board struck a task force, co-chaired by Mr. Pringle and Chief Saunders, to conduct a sweeping look at the KPMG paper, along with all the other reports in the dustbin, and promised to act on them. An interim analysis is due in June with a final report scheduled for December.

It might seem like an advanced exercise in paper-shuffling, but KPMG made some weighty suggestions: a moratorium on capital spending, recruitment and promotions; major changes to the deployment model; outsourcing of IT, finance and HR departments; a reduction in squad cars by “moving towards a more community-based operating model with more officers out of cars”; and bringing in lower-paid civilians to performs tasks traditionally done by officers.

A veteran investment banker, fundraiser, corporate chairman and political power-broker, Mr. Pringle is the kind of establishment man who, politically at least, would never be mistaken for a progressive. But he is an inveterate organizer who learned from the private sector to set hard targets and nail them. In his office sits a whiteboard setting out the board’s priorities along with the names of those responsible.

“He keeps it constantly in front of him, and in front of us, because we go in there before our meetings to look at the whiteboard,” said Mr. Tory.

Publicly, Chief Saunders is on side with the transformation efforts. On Friday, Chief Saunders told reporters he will not ask for a spending increase under the existing model next year. “I can tell you one thing, and that one thing is I was put here for the purpose of transforming the existing model and I am going to change the existing model,” he said.

The rhetorical harmony between the board and the chief is new. After the 2014 municipal election, Mayor Tory pledged to restore civility to the relationship. Critics took his message of détente as a sign he planned to let the service off the financial leash. His behind-the-scenes backing of Mark Saunders, the preferred choice of the powerful Toronto Police Association, over Mr. Sloly for chief only burnished that notion. He points out, however, that the board’s new collective agreement with the police directs both sides to discuss the prevailing 28-hour shift schedule that maintains costly officer overlaps and a rule that two officers must staff every car after dark. Changes to either policy would yield millions of dollars in savings.

“I think that is the test that’s now in front of us, and that’s the real test, and I think that the harmony that is there to a greater extent than it was before, will help us to achieve that,” Mr. Tory said.

There’s ample reason to doubt these promises of a new deal with police. For years, board members such as Mr. Mukherjee and Councillor Michael Thompson demanded that Mr. Blair reconsider deployments in a way that would draw down the number of costly officers in the field. Those debates ended in bad blood and successive ballooning budgets. Furthermore, the KPMG report ignores some important steps the city could take toward financial accountability for its biggest line item. “Right now the auditor-general does not have the authority to investigate spending of the Toronto Police Service. It’s not under her purview,” said Toronto Taxpayers Coalition president Andrea Micieli. “I think that is the single largest and most effective thing that can happen over the next year. Because it’s essential that the auditor-general, as a third-party independent office in Toronto – that office would be the best office to launch an impartial investigation on TPS spending.”

Changing that would require some involvement from Queen’s Park, which could be receptive considering it has launched its own effort to overhaul policing in the province.

Ms. Micieli pointed to other reasons for skepticism: the surfeit of “establishment voices” on the board and elsewhere who “may be more resistant to reform or review,” the unrelenting pressure of arbitration-controlled police salary increases and the outsized influence of the police union. Still, she thinks a 5-per-cent decrease in the police budget is within reach.

Mr. Tory said he, too, expects a “significantly different number” in next year’s budget and argued that the power of the union can be overstated. “It is the public interest that we’re all serving, and this notion that somehow any particular person has particular sway over any of us with respect to how we proceed to make these decisions is just not on,” he said.

“All I do know is that we can’t continue to finance the kind of growth in the size of the police budget that we’ve had.”

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