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Toronto Police deserve a fair wage – but there’s a limit

Once, being a police officer was a working-class job. Today, it is solidly middle-, even upper-middle, class. Officers enjoy excellent benefits, generous overtime pay and comfortable public-service pensions. Many can afford to retire at 50 or so. Statistics Canada reports that, as of 2013, only about 5 per cent of officers were 55 or older.

The latest "sunshine list" shows that last year more than half of Toronto Police Service employees made more than $100,000 – a total of 4,125 men and women, or 52 per cent of the force. One reason for this dubious breakthrough is that this year the police service started counting the money that officers make from "paid duty" – standing guard at construction sites or private functions. But even if you subtract the officers who went over $100,000 because of paid duty work, the number of sunshiners was about 600 higher in 2014 than in 2013.

Though many of those on the list are higher-ranking officers (a superintendent making $168,000, an inspector $147,000, a detective $142,000), a remarkable number are not. Two of the officers in the top five for pay are constables, one earning $244,000, the other $227,000.

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The assumption is that they earned most of the extra money by working overtime hours. Police can stack up a lot of OT simply by waiting around to testify in court. The police services board pointed out that a number of employees earned more than half their pay in overtime and other extras. It expressed the hope that the police service would "provide an objective explanation for this phenomenon."

Most people want police to be fairly compensated for a job that can be stressful and challenging, with late hours and shift work. But there is a limit.

The head of the police union, Mike McCormack, says that $100,000 isn't what it used to be. He argues that the sunshine list doesn't account for the fact that a detached house in Toronto now costs more than $1-million. But everyone in the city is dealing with higher housing prices, and a good number, including police officers, who already own houses have gained from it. Hardly anybody gets a cost-of-house-prices increase.

Powerful police unions and generous arbitration awards have pushed up police pay right across the country. Labour settlements for police tend to follow one another. When one force gets a good deal, others match or even better it. "This is a leapfrog method of increasing salaries: every time a police force in Canada gets an increase in salary, it raises all the boats in port," argues academic Christian Leuprecht in a paper last year for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

Municipalities from coast to coast are struggling to rein in costs. The Toronto force is trying to control overtime and farm out more functions to civilians. The police board would like it to go much further – one reason Chief Bill Blair didn't have his contract renewed last year.

Everyone says it is someone else's fault. The police union says it is only doing its job: trying to secure decent pay and working conditions for its members. The police brass says that 90 per cent of the budget goes to salaries and benefits and it is the police board that does the negotiating over pay. The board says that the police brass has to do more to streamline, modernize and civilianize its operations.

The arguments go around and round, year after year. Meanwhile, police salaries rise while crime decreases. Statscan says that Canada has had about the same number of police officers per capita since the mid-1970s but that the crime rate has been falling since the start of the 1990s.

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These are contradictions that no city can tolerate forever.

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