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Demonstrators calling for the defunding of police march in Toronto down Bloor St. From Christie Pits on Aug. 29, 2020.Yader Guzman/The Globe and Mail

The Toronto Police Services Board unanimously passed the city’s 2022 police budget this week, clearing the way for a $25-million increase that now goes to council for final approval.

Which brings us to “defund the police.”

More slogan than policy, it has become a journalistic go-to for an easy lede on any story about policing. Including a lot of recent takes on Toronto’s police budget.

For some advocates, “defund the police” means eliminating police services altogether – the central plot device of any Mad Max movie – or disbanding police departments and reconstituting them in a less police-y form. For others, it means cutting police budgets and redirecting the money to alternative public services.

Conservatives on both sides of the border love to characterize their opponents as pushing the Mad Max solution. American Democratic Party strategist James Carville recently pointed to that perception as one of the reasons his side hasn’t been more successful in winning over independent voters.

But while the defund movement doesn’t have strong support in the U.S. or Canada, its effect is to cast any increase in police budgets, no matter how small, in a politicized light.

And so voices were raised in protest when the Toronto Police Service requested in early January to increase its budget in 2022 to $1.1-billion, $25-million more than the year before.

While questioning every cent of government spending is always legitimate, it’s important to note that something remarkable is going on across Canada: Police departments have in fact been getting more efficient, or at least less costly. And it all started before anyone had heard of “defund the police.”

In 2016, when the Toronto Police budget hit the billion-dollar mark, this page raised questions about the growing police bill, particularly when crime rates were falling.

According to Statistics Canada, there were 188 officers per 100,000 Canadians in 2003, and that number had risen to 202 in 2012. Budgets for policing at all levels also grew faster than inflation between 2000 and 2010.

But since 2012, the number of cops per capita has been dropping. It is now below the 2003 level. As for spending, Statistics Canada says the per capita cost of policing in Canada has been flat since 2010, when inflation is taken into account.

You can see that trend in Toronto. Compared with 2016, when the police budget first broke $1-billion, the new allocation is less than 10 per cent higher, six years later. That’s well below the inflation rate.

At the same time, Canada’s crime rate remains far lower than its peak in the early 1990s, and is largely stable. It rose slightly from 2014 to 2019, then fell sharply in 2020. The national homicide rate has risen slightly over the same period, though the numbers are skewed by the mass murder in Nova Scotia in 2020 that left 22 dead.

The bottom line is that the contention that Canada is spending ever larger amounts on policing is no longer true. Annual budget increases have been in line with inflation for a decade, while the number of officers per capita is basically as low as it has ever been since 1986.

That means anyone dreaming of funding vast new social services by defunding policing is doomed to disappointment. Police are a relatively small part of public-sector spending. The Ontario Provincial Police, Canada’s second-largest force, costs just over $1-billion a year – a rounding error in a provincial budget of $186-billion.

That’s not to say police departments can’t find efficiencies. There should be questions about why fully trained, highly paid officers are operating speed traps, directing traffic and investigating non-violent incidents such as break-ins. Less-trained and lower-salaried civilians could take over any number of non-dangerous duties. That would free uniformed officers to do the things – namely reducing crime – that are the core of policing.

For example, with the steady growth in car thefts by organized crime, questions have been raised about why Toronto Police don’t have a unit dedicated to tackling the problem.

But the bottom line is that well trained, appropriately led and properly resourced police forces are a necessary part of civil society. Right now in Canada, we seem to have arrived at a moment where police budgets are stable relative to inflation, and the crime rate is stable, too. That’s not the end of the journey. But it’s a pretty good start.

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