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Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders (right) sits next to Toronto Mayor John Tory during a ceremony at Toronto Police Head Quarters on Wednesday May 20, 2015.Photo: Chris Young for The Globe and Mail.

Chris Young/The Globe and Mail

The battle in Toronto over its distending police budget is both a local issue and one symptomatic of a broader Canadian dilemma. The problem is this: Police budgets keep rising while crime keeps falling. But the conservative and cloistered nature of the policing profession has isolated it from cutbacks and the timely adoption of new efficiencies.

Basically, police departments in Canada exist in their own world, and so far there has been little that taxpayers and politicians have been able to do about it. This has to change. Policing is a difficult and necessary business, and officers deserve to be well paid. But there has to be more of a give and take, starting with the acknowledgment that police budgets aren't sacrosanct.

In Toronto, the seeds of revolt are being tentatively sown. For the first time, City Council has been asked to approve a budget costing taxpayers more than $1-billion. The amount is not the issue so much as the psychological barrier it represents. People are waking up to the fact that policing keeps getting more expensive while other budgets are being squeezed, and they are asking questions.

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One Toronto councillor has pointed out that Chicago's police department has twice as many officers and full-time employees as Toronto's, but spends only $400-million more to do so. Another on Wednesday tabled a $24-million cut to the police budget. That threat prompted Mayor John Tory to counter that any arbitrary slashing will take hundreds of officers off the street overnight.

This is always the argument, of course: lower budgets equal fewer officers equals chaos. It's a canned rhetoric that makes it next to impossible to have a reasoned debate about police costs.

But Mr. Tory, as well as Police Chief Mark Saunders, also admitted this week that the status quo can't continue. The Mayor said the budget "shows the beginnings of how we can do better." Chief Saunders indicated that he will look at cost-savings in the future. Both have promised in their own way this will be the last time Toronto council is presented with a police budget that contains what has essentially become a built-in annual increase.

This change has to come, and not just in Toronto. In Canada as a whole, the cost of policing at the federal, provincial and municipal levels has risen faster than the rate of inflation for the past 20 years, even as crime rates have dropped significantly.

The vast majority of policing costs – up to 90 per cent – are the salaries of uniformed officers, of which there are more and more. A 2014 study found that, between 2001 and 2012, the number of officers per 100,000 Canadians increased nine per cent, while the crime rate fell 26 per cent. The total cost of policing across Canada in 2012 was $13.5-billion.

The bottom line is that, in order to save money, we either need fewer police officers, or they need to take a cut in pay. That second option is not politically feasible or even desirable. The only serious choice for departments that are asked by their taxpayers to cut costs is to reduce the number of uniformed officers on staff, and use those that remain in a more efficient way, with the help of new technologies and new thinking.

Can this be done? That's what Toronto is hoping. The city has named a task force that will examine the way the police department spends its money. The department itself has taken steps to reduce costs for years, but at a slow pace. One example of that is "civilianization," where lower-paid, non-uniformed employees do some of the less-specialized work now required of police officers.

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In some cities, this includes non-emergency crime-scene investigations, such as home break-ins. It can also include victim support duties and directing traffic.

To its credit, Toronto Police have gone from 1,784 civilian employees in 2004 to 1,978 in 2015. However, that's not exactly a rapid increase, and the figures fall below established targets. Whether this shift can happen more quickly is a reasonable question for politicians and the police chief to answer.

Less crime also means police are spending more time than ever on each crime scene. In 1999, the average "time per event" for Toronto Police was 97.5 minutes. By 2014, it had spiked to 194.5 minutes. The department says this is due to officers collecting new types of evidence, such as video, completing paperwork and meeting the public's raised expectations. Again, legitimate questions can be asked about the efficiency of this.

Technology, too, can cut costs. Better data can improve staffing practices by reducing the number of officers on duty during low crime periods of the day or year, for instance.

None of this can happen, though, until police departments accept a simple calculation: Cities can't cut policing costs in a meaningful way without reducing the number of uniformed officers they employ, and they can't do that without rethinking what officers do and how they do it. If they're serious about reducing costs, police departments such as Toronto's must embrace this truth.

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