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A Toronto Police officer in a supervisor's vehicle. Jan. 11, 2012Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

This is the first part in a series of three editorials on the cost of policing. Read part two and part three.

Just as Canada's provinces are saddled with the escalating cost of health care, so too are municipal governments sinking under the unmanageable burden of another sacred area of public sector spending: policing.

Last year, police protection cost Canada's cash-strapped cities $12.6-billion – the 14th consecutive year of spending growth, even after adjusting for inflation.

While the volume and severity of crime in Canada have been steadily declining for the last decade, police strength has gone in the other direction. There are now 200 officers for every 100,000 people – an increase of 9 per cent since 2001, though homicides rates are at their lowest in more than 30 years. Some high-crime cities, such as Regina and Winnipeg, have high police strength, but so, too, do cities such as Toronto and Montreal, which rank low on the crime-severity index. The number of Criminal Code incidents per officer has declined steadily since peaking 20 years ago.

Police officers have highly stressful jobs that often require shift work and exposure to unpleasant people and tragic situations. They play a crucial role in society and deserve proper compensation – but just what that level should be is difficult to determine.

Unlike other public-sector employees, many municipal police forces continue to receive annual raises that outpace inflation. From 2009 to 2011, expenditures on police salaries and benefits increased by 5 per cent across the country, while other police operating expenditures fell 4 per cent, Statistics Canada reports.

A first-class officer in Canada's big cities now earns $80,000-$90,000 a year on average – before overtime and benefits. That makes them among the most generously compensated police in the world. During this year of hard-pressed public finances, the Toronto Police Association negotiated an 11.5-per-cent pay increase over the next four years for its members. Officers get 18 annual days of sick leave, and can bank unused leave, half of which can then be paid out in salary. They can retire at 50, with full pensions, after 30 years of service.

Why is there so little public discussion? And why don't municipal governments make it a priority to assess this sector's efficiency, organization and innovation? Municipal politicians fear that austerity measures will earn them an "anti-police" label tantamount to political suicide. During his campaign, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford supported the police to the point of absurdity, pledging to hire 100 additional officers, even though the Toronto Police Service had not made such a request. Once in office, the Ford administration agreed to increase the police budget by 0.6 per cent to $936-million, while holding all other departments to a 10-per-cent cut.

In Calgary, while Mayor Naheed Nenshi supported the idea of a 1.5-per-cent decrease to the police budget, the majority of city council disagreed, and ended up reversing millions of dollars in cuts, and approving $18.3-million more to the police budget over three years and adding 122 more officers.

The political deference shown to police means no pressure for innovation, unlike in health care and education. It should not be unpatriotic to better manage compensation costs in policing.

This is not the same as questioning the value of police. A front-line constable has a dangerous and unpredictable job, and must do everything from picking up drunks from the gutter and plucking copulating couples off subway platforms to investigating brutal scenes of violence. Canada's municipal and provincial police forces, as well as the RCMP, enjoy high levels of trust, reflected in the outpouring of support at police funerals.

To be sure, the rising costs also relate to the expanded role of police, including federal policing around border security, international drug trafficking and cybercrime. Charter of Rights requirements also mean officers must provide more information to the defence, and physically compile and catalogue every scrap of evidence for a trial, a process which can tie up a homicide officer for months.

The public, too, needs to manage its expectations of what a uniformed officer can reasonably be expected to do. Many Canadian cities already have auxiliary volunteer officers who assist police, and traffic officers who earn substantially less to ticket disobedient motorists. Businesses call police to clear panhandlers from sidewalks. Could not other city agencies perform some of these roles, and allow police to deal with criminals?

No public service can remain aloof from reform. The public should not expect more and more officers on the streets. Political leaders need to conduct a system-wide review of funding. And saying that doesn't make you soft on crime.

Do you agree that Canada's policing systems are in need of major reform?

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