Every year, it comes to this: A cash-strapped city trying to rein in runaway policing costs is outmaneuvered by a chief who insists that public safety depends on a budget increase.
The scenario is playing out yet again in Toronto, just has it has in municipalities across the country for years. The tension will continue on Wednesday afternoon when Chief Bill Blair meets with the police board to discuss budget matters.
Since 2000, police spending in Canada has ballooned by an average 7 per cent a year, according to Statistics Canada – a figure that rivals health-care costs in terms of unrelenting growth.
That's why the two men heading Toronto's civilian police oversight board say they've taken such a hard-line stand with Chief Blair this year, arguing that the current budget battle isn't just about a single year's budget line, but about the ongoing ability of cities to pay for the increasingly onerous cost of public safety.
"The issue isn't about Bill Blair personally, it boils down to the increasing cost of policing and whether our city can continue to afford it," said Toronto Police Services Board vice-chair Michael Thompson, who had harsh words last week when the chief requested a 1.5-per-cent increase on the force's operating budget rather than execute the 10-per-cent cut Mayor Rob Ford has demanded from every city department.
Other cities are focusing intently on Toronto's police drama, hoping that Mr. Ford might secure the beachhead in a national battle to bring police expenses under control.
"It's very rare for a mayor in Canada to actually cut a police budget," said Daniel Fontaine, former chief of staff to Sam Sullivan, Vancouver's mayor from 2005 to 2008. "If Mayor Ford can do it, hats off. We're all watching."
While Canadian police budgets have increased, the crime rate has plummeted to its lowest levels since the mid-1970s, and officers deal with one-third fewer offences than they did in 1991.
"I've been trying to raise this issue for years," said Toronto Police Services Board chair Alok Mukherjee. "We are sort of going along merrily in this fashion but at some point we'll come to a reckoning. It's unsustainable."
Dr. Mukherjee points to several factors that have made the police budget a bigger strain: a lack of sustained funding from Ottawa for the 10 to 15 per cent of local policing duties that fall under federal jurisdiction; sporadic funding from the province to pay for the one-third of calls that derive from people with mental-health problems; and an absence of benchmarks informing police boards how many officers they need to deal with a given crime rate. The legislation mandates that police forces maintain "adequate and effective" service, without defining how many cops that requires.
"That number depends largely on the city's ability to pay and what the chief says," said Dr. Mukherjee. "When the chief has a higher profile than the board, it becomes difficult to get our message across."
Dr. Mukherjee also said that the force needs to look at replacing uniformed officers in some jobs with civilians, who can cost up to $40,000 less a year.
But he plays down the recent collective agreement he signed that awards Toronto Police a wage increase of 11.5 per cent over four years.
"Yes, most people blame it on the contract, but there are other larger issues," he said. "Business as usual is not possible, or sustainable. The crisis today is an opportunity to engage some new ideas so that we can avoid these critical points every year."