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Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The cost of policing cannot continue to rise indefinitely in Canada, or cities will end up bankrupt. Pools, camps, parks and libraries will have to close. Police in England and several U.S. cities have already undertaken drastic and innovative reforms to transform the delivery of law enforcement for a modern era.

This has not yet happened in Canada. But there is no time to waste. Police should heed the advice of Public Safety Minister Vic Toews who told an Ottawa conference this week that soaring costs are simply not sustainable.

Police leaders would be wise to start experimenting with a greater use of civilian staff, as well as a campaign to remind the public that uniformed officers cannot do everything. Spending on policing has increased for 14 consecutive years in Canada, even as the volume and severity of crime have steadily declined. Municipalities are struggling to manage these ballooning costs, which reached $12.6-billion in 2011.

Police have taken on extra tasks that are not part of their core functions, including answering calls related to problems not of crime, but of poverty, addiction and mental health. It is time to hand back some of these responsibilities to social workers, bylaw enforcement workers and private security companies. There is no reason a sworn officer should spend his or her day writing up paperwork, or dealing with false alarms, loose dogs or panhandlers.

Police in England and Wales are facing a 20-per-cent reduction in funding over five years. This means 28,000 fewer officers, cutbacks in overtime pay and the contracting out of support and administrative work, as well as the hiring of IT and other technical consultants.

In Canada, with about 80 per cent of the public security budget directed to salaries and benefits, police must be prepared for similar change. A first-class officer in a large Canadian city makes about $80,000 to $90,000 a year on average – before overtime and benefits. The Toronto Police Association allows officers to bank unused sick leave and to retire at 50, at full pension, after 30 years on the force. Are these benefits really viable? The idea of "tiered policing," which allows for different levels of remuneration according to the unit an officer is assigned to, is worth considering.

The public is right to expect the law enforcement sector to modernize. There can be no other way.