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Toronto now has over 5,000 uniformed officers. Whether that's the appropriate number "is by no means settled," says outgoing Toronto Police Services Board chair Alok Mukherjee.The Globe and Mail

The Toronto Police Service likes to compare itself to Chicago when it comes to justifying its staffing levels – it's a city with a comparable population and nearly twice as many uniformed officers.

But Chicago had 415 murders last year. In 2013, there were 57 homicides in Toronto.

The per capita cost of policing in Toronto has increased by 14 per cent, to $387 per resident, in the past four years – nearly twice the rate of inflation over that time. The gross operating budget this year of $1.08-billion is one of the highest per capita policing costs of any city in the country, and it's not easily trimmed because 90 per cent is made up of salaries, benefits and overtime to employees.

While costs continue to rise, the crime rate continues to fall. In just the past three years, major crime incidents are down nearly 20 per cent, according to Toronto police data. The crime severity index, calculated each year by Statistics Canada, lists Toronto as one of the safest cities in the country. Only Barrie and Guelph had a lower index score.

Neighbouring Peel Region, which has a similar crime rate to Toronto, has significantly fewer officers per population. As a result, the per capita costs in Peel this year are projected to be nearly 20 per cent lower than in Toronto.

A four per cent reduction in the number of uniformed Toronto police officers would save enough money to offset the property tax increase dedicated to pay for the city's $1-billion share of the proposed Scarborough subway extension. Yet, of the five leading leading mayoral candidates, only David Soknacki has raised the issue, promising this week to be able to reduce the annual budget by six per cent without cutting the number of officers. So why aren't people willing to consider whether Toronto can still be a safe city, but with fewer officers?

The need to address the cost of policing has been identified as one of the reasons the police services board turned down Bill Blair's offer to stay on as chief for another term. When it comes to the appropriate number of uniformed officers in the city, Toronto Police Services Board chair Alok Mukherjee says "the issue is by no means settled."

The vice-chair of the board, Councillor Michael Thompson, has been one of the few politicians to speak publicly about police costs.

"People realize that we can be safe and the costs should come down. That requires a different mindset in police leadership and police thinking," he says. "Police are there to get the best out of the service at a cost that is manageable. It is not about empire-building."

Since the decision was made to seek a new chief of police, Mr. Mukherjee has spoken publicly about the need for a new model of policing. Yet under his leadership, the board has granted approval to Chief Blair to hire 360 new recruits in the past two years to offset retirements.

In a report to the board last month, the chief indicated that the "hiring strategy" is to have a net gain of 200 officers by 2016 to meet the "established strength" total and an additional 100 civilian employees. (Established strength, which is currently 5,505 uniformed officers, is a figure that must be approved by the board and city council as part of a Police Services Act requirement to provide "adequate and effective" policing.)

A consultant's report commissioned by the chief suggested increasing the established strength by 178 officers. The same study admitted that its conclusions were hampered by the fact that "the TPS does not currently collect detailed data on the activities of its officers."

Tony Veneziano, chief administrative officer of the Toronto police, says the goal is to keep the crime rate low. "We do that by being more proactive," he says, which is why the service is seeking to "ramp up" hiring over the next two years to the level of its established strength.

Toronto's billion-dollar operation is a large operation, says Christian Leuprecht, a political science and economics professor at Royal Military College in Kingston, who is also part of the School of Policy Studies at Queen's University.

"It is ultimately council and taxpayers that have to step up and say, Sorry, there is no more money," says Mr. Leuprecht, who published a detailed report this spring on policing costs in Canada for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

"We have oodles of evidence that the complement of police and the crime rate do not correlate," he says. "So much of what police do now is deal with mental health issues. We have securitized matters that are public health matters."

The use-of-force report issued recently by retired Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci called for greater communication between police and mental health workers in Toronto and changes to reduce the time officers spend in emergency rooms after bringing a person with mental health issues to hospital.

In Ottawa, the chair of its police services board is calling for broader changes in this area. "Why do you need two police officers, fully armed, for someone who won't take their medication? Why not have social workers travel with police?" suggests Eli El-Chantiry, who is also the city's deputy mayor. He is also calling for the province and municipalities to join in a core review of firefighters and police. These budgets are "a big ship that is difficult to turn around," says Mr. El-Chantiry. "Why do we have to pay more?"

Cost reduction is always a priority for Toronto police, says Mr. Veneziano. "If we can do something more cheaply, we are going to take a look at it."

More than 80 per cent of the budgetary increase in the past decade has been a result of higher salaries and benefits for employees, says Mr. Veneziano. The base pay this year for a first-class constable is $90,000; a new recruit can reach that level within five years. "We don't have control over the negotiations," he says. He agrees that significant reductions to the Toronto police budget would require layoffs.

The head of the Toronto police association, Mike McCormack, says many of the statistics about the service are misleading when it comes to the value provided by his members.

"Just looking at the crime rate is overly simplistic," he says. Legislative and policy changes as well as increased disclosure obligations mean an officer attends to fewer calls per shift. For example, a domestic assault call will on average, take up 445 minutes. "Officers spend more time tied up, off the road, so there is less time for proa-ctive policing," says Mr. McCormack.

It is "a misnomer" that police costs are increasing relative to the city's budget, he says. This year, the police made up just over 11 per cent of Toronto's gross operating budget. That figure has consistently been between nine and 11 per cent since 1997.

In terms of what happens next, in addition to having to decide on a new chief, collective agreements between the board and union representing uniformed and civilian employees expire on Dec. 31. The police services board has commissioned its own consultants' report on sustainable policing, due this fall.

The consultants "have not been hired to engage in an abstract or theoretical exercise," says Mr. Mukherjee, who said their mandate is very clear. It is "to bring forward a practical plan that can be implemented starting immediately for providing policing in a cost-effective way."

Special to The Globe and Mail

Crime Severity Index vs. cost per capita of police services

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