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In October, 2010, the British government dropped a bomb on law enforcement in England and Wales. All 43 services were ordered to cut 20 per cent from their budgets within four years, without reducing the number of uniformed officers.Oli Scarff

Somewhere in rural Norfolk county, a volunteer is standing at a village intersection with a speed gun so a police officer doesn't have to.

In other parts of England and Wales, unpaid civilians are unlocking stations in the morning, gardening outside divisions, exercising police dogs, even handling basic forensic work at crime scenes.

This is what austerity looks like in Britain and according to a growing number of officials on this side of the Atlantic, it's a glimpse into the not-so-distant future for Canadian police services – most imminently Toronto.

This past summer, Toronto's civilian oversight board stunned residents when it decided not to renew Chief Bill Blair's contract. Board insiders say that the chief's reluctance to embrace major change was a significant factor. Now, the board is on the hunt for a reform-friendly replacement, someone willing to push unpopular restructuring, like what's been happening in Britain.

In October, 2010, the recession- ravaged British government dropped a bomb on law enforcement in England and Wales. (Northern Ireland and Scotland are different jurisdictions.) All 43 services were ordered to cut 20 per cent from their budgets within four years, and they had to do it without reducing the number of uniformed officers. Depending on who you ask, the results are either reckless or genius.

Toronto police board chair Alok Mukherjee falls in the latter camp.

"If we are to bring the cost of policing under control, as we need to do, we have to be as innovative as we can and ask fundamental questions about the traditional model of policing," Mr. Mukherjee said.

"There are some lessons to learn in how they do budgeting, how they have used technology, how they have maximized their resources."

Mr. Mukherjee's views have caused his once-friendly relationship with the Toronto Police Association to deteriorate. The latest example came Friday, when union president Mike McCormack called for Mr. Mukherjee's resignation, because the chair reposted critical comments about American police culture on his Facebook page. Mr. McCormack claimed this illustrated a "lack of objectivity." The union president frequently accuses Mr. Mukherjee of "grandstanding" on budget issues, but the chair hasn't backed off. Next year, he will celebrate his 10th anniversary as head of Toronto's police board. He has staked his legacy on being the man who wrestled police costs into submission.

That showdown has captured the Canadian police community's attention.

"I can tell you with absolute certainty that every police service board in Ontario – and I would think not a stretch to imagine every police board in Canada – is fixated on what's happening in Toronto," said Cal Corley, a former assistant commissioner with the RCMP who now runs a private consulting firm.

Mr. Corley counts himself among the group that believes that the costly Canadian police system is unsustainable. A September, 2014, report from the Fraser Institute found that between 1986 and 2012, per capita police costs in Canada climbed by about 45 per cent. Over the same period, crime per officer dropped by 37 per cent. In Toronto alone, the police budget has ballooned by $240-million, or 34 per cent, in 10 years.

That said, Canadian police services are lean compared with Britain, which spends significantly more on policing per capita, even though officers – at least in urban areas – are paid less. (A Toronto police constable tops out around $90,000, while the average officer in London makes about $80,000 (Canadian) despite that city's high cost of living. This is due to the fact that police officers can't unionize in Britain.) When the 20-per-cent deadline is up next year, the British government has signalled they will be asking for another 25 per cent.

Over the past four years, British forces already found nearly $4.5-billion (Canadian) in savings.

The early days of austerity went as expected: Civilians were downsized or offered voluntary severance, buildings were sold off and expensive management ranks were gutted. But it still wasn't enough. Chiefs were forced to get creative to make the numbers work.

Today, in many areas of England, police officers no longer go to crime scenes for minor occurrences such as bicycle theft. Instead, reports are taken over the phone, sometimes by civilians.

Some of the most significant savings came from contracting out administrative services. For example, the Cleveland police force in northeast England hired a European company called Steria to run its finance, human resources, procurement, fleet and facilities departments. Other forces choose to partner with neighbours, which was the case in Norfolk and Suffolk counties. The two police services combined all of their back-office administrative functions, as well as traffic, homicide and forensic teams. It's also commonplace to share divisions and other resources, such as vehicles.

Volunteers have always played a role in British policing model, but they've now become essential. Chiefs say they have no problem recruiting unpaid civilians to drive police cars from one division to another, clean the fleet and take fingerprints at crime scenes. All of this frees up front-line officers to do work that only a police officer can do.

And that specific work – arrests, investigations, crime prevention – is being evaluated in unprecedented detail. Simon Bailey, the chief in Norfolk, talks about his service as if he is the CEO of a multimillion dollar company.

"I know exactly what the flow of my business looks like. I know what my emerging threats are and I'm able to adopt strategies and policies based on the best evidence there is to tackle those challenges."

For example, Norfolk had a problem with sick days, which meant paying for expensive overtime staff. An investigation determined a small group of "frequent flyers" were calling in around the holidays. So Chief Bailey sent them a letter, he says: "In recent years we've noticed that you've taken time off every Christmas. Is there anything we can do to help you this year to make sure you don't?" Sickness-related absences fell below 3 per cent.

In another case, Norfolk was clocking high vehicle-repair bills. Staff identified the problem drivers and sent them on a course.

"If people know their driving is being monitored, you start seeing reduction [in accidents]," Chief Bailey said. "I don't think there's a great secret to this."

At London's Metropolitan Police Service, commonly referred to as "The Met," officers no longer randomly patrol the city.

"We do something called 'predicative policing,'" Deputy Commissioner Craig Mackey said. The Met recently began using a computer program that models the algorithm used to predict earthquakes to analyze crime data and pinpoint areas and times when crime is likely to occur.

But one of the most controversial post-austerity developments was purely symbolic.

In 2012, the British home secretary Theresa May named Thomas Winsor as Britain's Chief Inspector of Constabulary – the country's law enforcement watchdog. Mr. Winsor, a commercial lawyer by trade who spent five years as Britain's rail regulator, is the first ever non-police officer to hold the office. The government received 20,000 letters of protest.

It was Mr. Winsor who, between 2010-2012, completed an extensive review of police compensation and career structures, which resulted in pay cuts, an increased pension age, mandatory annual fitness tests and changes around promotions. Effective this past fall, police officers can be hired directly into a management rank of inspector, rather than starting out as a constable and working their way up. (This is not allowed in Ontario.)

Last week, Mr. Winsor's office published a 251-page report card on the state of policing in England and Wales. As part of the review, Mr. Winsor's office evaluated all 43 services and graded them on efficiency and effectiveness. In a recent interview with The Globe at his London office, Mr. Winsor doesn't try to soften his contempt for certain aspects of police culture.

"There is a great deal of inefficiency in the police, bred principally by poor supervision and leadership," he said.

According to Mr. Winsor, the key to lasting savings is threefold: High performers need to be rewarded, inefficient officers need to be retrained and everyone needs to have the right technology. Filing out paper forms is inefficient. Going back to the station to research is inefficient.

"Most of the time, what matters is not 'How many cops have you got?' but 'what do they do?' … A police officer, well motivated, being eager and energetic, creative, imaginative and so on, can perhaps achieve in one shift much more than two or three police officers who frankly just clock on and don't do much."

Critics of the British model are quick to point that out there are key differences Britain and Canada.

For one thing, the funding model is different. The central government funds the police in England and Wales. Local communities kick in a very small percentage of the total budget. In Canada, police funding comes from the associated level of government. Toronto city council sets the city's police budget, which means forces can find themselves taken hostage by local political infighting.

Secondly, it is illegal for police officers to unionize. The pay scale is set by the government. (All officers across the country are paid the same, although there are cost of living top ups depending on the service.) In Canada, if the union and police board can't agree, it goes to arbitration. In that scenario, the police are almost always awarded an increase. As such, when the British government wanted to cut the rate for a new constable, reduce bonus pay and extend pension age, it was able to make those controversial changes without real opposition. That would never fly in Canada.

"It's hard to compare apples to apples," said OPP Commissioner Vince Hawkes, who was part of a delegation of Canadian police officials who travelled to Britain in 2012 to see some of the reforms. "Their number of police officers for population ratio is very high to begin with. Back in the '90s and early 2000s, we went through that whole exercise of reducing numbers."

Commissioner Hawkes said there absolutely are ways to improve the current system. The OPP, for example, is overhauling how it measures officer performance. They've also already introduced citizen self-reporting for minor crimes. "You can imagine the distances we'd have to send officers to deal with a stolen chain saw … that's only being filed for insurance purposes," the commissioner said.

But simply picking up the British model and dropping it here wouldn't work.

Toronto's outgoing chief agrees. Chief Blair noted that next year he'll be travelling to London to speak at conference on the future of policing. The government is keen to learn how he manages to police a city of nearly three million with a little more than 5,000 officers.

"I think there are very innovative policing models in the United States, in many places of the U.K., in many European services and many Asian services. That's part of an ongoing dialogue among police officials around the world, looking for ways to be efficient and effective in what we do," Chief Blair said. "I think everyone worldwide is facing certain challenges in terms of economic sustainability."

Toronto's chief says he's certainly interested in adopting what the Brits have done with technology, but he notes that the funding differences would make amalgamation between forces challenging.

"It might make more sense to partner with [Toronto city hall]" in terms of administrative departments, "which we already do in some areas."

The president of Toronto's police union, Mr. McCormack, has a harsher view.

"It's not working," he said, citing a survey conducted by the Police Federation of England and Wales that showed officers feel overworked and that they believe communities are not being well served.

If the board tries to bring in a chief who will go this route, Mr. McCormack said they won't sit idly by.

"We're about safe communities and we will be doing anything that we need to do to ensure that the safety of our communities aren't jeopardized for somebody a) politically grandstanding or b) the sake of numbers – someone who wants to say they cut the police budget."

This story is to be continued.

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