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Public Safety Minister Vic Toews will have his hands full crafting an online surveillance bill without lumping opponents in with pedophiles.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Police chiefs from across Canada are being urged to look at radical new approaches to public safety as they struggle to meet growing demands to keep their budgets in check.

Speaking at the start of a national summit on the economics of policing on Wednesday morning, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews suggested the current policing system is unsustainable and said local forces will need to consider ways to reform it.

"I'll be blunt," Mr. Toews said. "Police services face two options: They can do nothing and eventually be forced to cut drastically, as we have seen in some countries. Or they can be proactive, get ahead of the curve and have greater flexibility in designing and implementing both incremental and meaningful structural reforms."

Many local police forces are going through profound upheaval as they work to address public expectations to provide a broader range of services at a lower cost. Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair faces a budget freeze that he has warned could result in fewer officers on the streets. Police in Vancouver are looking to fill hire more civilians to do certain kinds of police work, and the Waterloo Regional Police Service is piloting a new scheduling system to better match staffing levels with call volumes throughout the day.

Mike Cunningham, chief constable for the Staffordshire Police in Britain, was part of a panel dealing with privatization and civilian recruitment at the summit on Wednesday.

His force is losing hundreds of officers and civilian staff as a result of sweeping budget cuts. Mr. Cunningham said he has focused on sharing resources with neighbouring police forces and local public services. Staffordshire authorities have created a hub to host local services for vulnerable children, a move the chief constable said saves money and contributes to better service.

Police have also contracted out care for people in custody, a move Mr. Cunningham said has worked well so far. And the service has moved toward recruiting more civilian staff and volunteers to work with full-time police officers.

"We need to find radically different ways of delivering the service," he said in an interview outside the summit. "Because it is insufficient just to say we will carry on working the same way but with fewer people, because there are so many fewer."

Vancouver Police chief Jim Chu, who was in Ottawa for the summit, said his force is looking to hire staff who can take on low-level police work such as dealing with some bylaw offences, guarding some crime scenes and dealing with lost property. "That can free up regular officers so they're more available for the more important calls and work that they can do," he said.

He said police forces should look for opportunities to work with social agencies – which could become increasingly challenging as social services face budget constraints.

"I used to call us the social service agency of last resort. Now with the cutbacks to all the other agencies, we're the social service agency of first resort. Dealing with homelessness, dealing with street disorder, dealing with the products of poverty," Mr. Chu said, adding that police are not the best-placed to deal with those issues.

At the same time, the police-reported crime rate in Canada dropped to the lowest level in nearly four decades in 2011, according to Statistics Canada.

Mr. Toews has raised questions about the value of crime statistics in the past. But the Public Safety Minister acknowledged on Wednesday that the declining rate is an important consideration for police budgets.

"We're seeing a shift in public expectations," he said. "A decade ago the average Canadian readily accepted, almost without question, steady increases in police budgets. Today, however, there are increasing calls to demonstrate the value of the investments that all governments make in public services, including policing."

The policing summit runs Wednesday and Thursday in Ottawa and includes police chiefs, officers, academics and government representatives from across Canada.