Bill Blair has been an excellent chief of police, leading the Toronto Police Service through difficult times with great intelligence and integrity.
He deserved better than the shabby public ouster that came last week with the police board's decision not to reappoint him for a third term. Even so, his departure may serve a useful purpose, kicking off a serious debate about the future of policing in Toronto.
The battle lines in that debate are already being drawn. Police board chair Alok Mukherjee says that the force needs a top-to-bottom transformation to control soaring costs. He wants the police to become less hierarchical and more flexible, assigning many administrative and other tasks to civilians.
Police union leader Mike McCormack says that Mr. Mukherjee is exaggerating the problem and discounting the role of traditional crime-fighting that still occupies police much of the time. He accuses Mr. Mukherjee of grandstanding. "Why hasn't he been talking about these ideas in the past?" Mr. McCormack wonders.
In fact, Mr. Mukherjee has been pushing for change at the force for some time. Back in 2011, when recently elected Mayor Rob Ford was pushing for cuts in the police budget, Mr. Mukherjee warned that, unless the city did something to rein in costs, local policing could become "unsustainable" and other community services would need to be cut. Instead of merely trimming here and there to satisfy the Mayor's demands for austerity, he said, the force must embark on "transformative" change in the way it does business.
Progress since then has been gradual. Mr. Mukherjee gives the force credit for bringing in a new IT system, slimming its command structure and giving over some functions to civilians. But he wants much more. In an era when crime rates are down and a lot of police work is social work as much as crime fighting, he says, the force needs sweeping reform. A new chief, he argues, will bring fresh eyes and new ideas.
No matter who leads the force, he says, change is unavoidable. He is surely right about that. Police forces across North America are struggling to adapt to changing times and control spiralling costs.
"Canada's police are pricing themselves out of business," writes analyst Christian Leuprecht in a recent paper for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. "Police budgets have increased at a rate double that of GDP over the last decade, while calls from the public for service have remained stable." Nearly 40 per cent of Toronto Police Service's work force shows up on the "sunshine list" of public employees making over $100,000.
He notes that many of the duties performed by police do not require an armed, highly trained uniformed officer. One U.S. study he cites showed that only 5 per cent of calls required police to use some kind of force to ensure the safety of the public or the officer.
"Many of the duties that police perform," Prof. Leuprecht writes, "can be performed as effectively and efficiently by non-sworn members, special constables, community safety officers, or private security companies." In Britain, where the law now allows police to send community-support officers to escort prisoners and even investigate minor crimes, civilians outnumber sworn officers in some police forces.
Introducing such sharp change in Toronto would not be easy. Police commanders and union leaders naturally resist seeing their duties handed to other, less-trained workers. Although much police work these days may indeed by a kind of social work, those like Mr. McCormack argue that police often find themselves in dangerous situations and that shootings and stabbings are still unfortunately commonplace on the streets of the city.
The rising costs of policing has complex sources. Some of it comes from leapfrogging labour arbitration awards. Some of it comes from rising demands on police, who face more paperwork and other complications that stem from new accountability standards. It isn't all the fault of stick-in-the-mud police practices and it certainly isn't all the fault of Bill Blair.
Still, Mr. Mukherjee is right to press for a genuine transformation. Others are beginning to take up the challenge. Mayoral candidate David Soknacki, for one, is rolling out a series of proposals, including a new shift structure, to control costs. Let the debate begin.