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Dec 13, 2012  |  Vote 0    0

BEYOND THE HEADLINES: Budget leaves police chief with limited options

City Centre Mirror

David Soknacki

At the centre of the debate freezing the Toronto Police Service budget is the question of whether residents will remain safe.

Police Chief Bill Blair originally thought that limiting his budget expenditures to last year’s level would have consequences. “When we don’t have enough police officers,” he said. “Our ability to keep ... communities safe can be affected.”  

But the Police Services Board remained unconvinced, and unanimously voted to approve the budget without an increase.

Afterwards Chief Blair was quoted in the media as saying: “I’d keep Toronto safe if it was just me and two other guys. Whatever is available to us, we’ll just go out and do our best.”

Although Torontonians are grateful for the enthusiasm, fortunately we have more than three police officers. Chief Blair still commands 5,320 uniformed officers and a budget of almost $930 million. Yet given his earlier concerns, residents may wonder whether they will remain safe, and how he plans to keep them so.

Toronto’s backdrop of declining crime rates is promising. The most recent data show substantial decreases in all forms of crime, with the exception of a minor jump in the murder rate. On a per capita basis, we are safer now than we have been for decades.

Part of the reason is demographics, since the section of population most engaged in crime, young men, is declining. Part of our crime reduction is due to the intelligent use of technology. Databases, mapping and communications have proven to be very helpful. And part of the reason is smarter policing. Our police have tried a number of effective initiatives, such as their anti-gang strategy.

Yet the Police Services Board, in combination with city council, has given Chief Blair a tough assignment. With a budget consisting of more than 90 per cent in labour costs, he must look at the number and productivity of his staff.

He begins from a difficult position, since the board agreed to a collective agreement that keeps Toronto’s officers the highest paid in Canada. With increases on average three times more than council paid to its unionized staff, the board locked in budget increases and expensive officers.  

Nor was the board particularly helpful in wresting productivity gains during labour negotiations.

It follows that Chief Blair must get more out of his workforce. He will probably start with reviewing his organization, and work to reduce the practice of two-officer patrols. Although these and other changes are essential, such ideas are easier said than done.

The biggest challenge to achieving enough productivity gains is due to the size and power of the police union, the Toronto Police Association.

As a result, Chief Blair has few places to turn. While he can do his best to increase productivity, the Toronto Police Association is vigilant, well-financed and accustomed to grievances. The Police Services Board is already anticipating legal challenges should Chief Blair downsize his organization or attempt productivity gains contrary to the wishes of the union.

Under the rigid labour system now in place, change will probably come at the pace of retiring officers. As individuals leave, Chief Blair will then have some ability to redeploy officers. However, it is in the union’s interest, and also within its ability, to limit productivity increases generated by these changes.

And so we come back to questions of whether Torontonians will remain safe, and how Chief Blair can make that assurance with constrained resources.

Thanks to fewer young men in our population, adequate investment in technology and a history of smart policing, Torontonians will be safe. But due to inflexibility in labour relations, Chief Blair’s options are limited.

David Soknacki is a former City of Toronto councillor and budget chief. Contact him at www.soknacki.com

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