Sewell: Are our cops underworked?

By John Sewell –

The President of the Toronto Police Association, Dave Wilson, has said his goal in a new contract with the Toronto Police Services Board is to ensure Toronto police officers are the highest paid police in Canada.

At the moment, the highest paid officers work for the Peel Service—they start at about $53,000 a year for someone just out of high school, while Toronto officers are about $2,500 behind. Negotiations between the association and the board have dragged for eight months without resolution, and the association has opted for binding arbitration. Experience shows that arbitrators often side with employees, so the Association may end up getting much of its demand.

So what should police officer be paid? It’s as difficult a question to answer as any other question about wages in the public sector. It should be a good living wage, and commensurate with training, education, and job stress. It should also relate to the ability of the municipality to pay, given its other financial responsibilities, and the other program it has to deliver. And some weight should be on the value of the job to social goals.

In short, it is hard to made fast and loose decisions about public sector wages, and it is particularly difficult when it comes to police. The biggest problem is that few know what it is exactly that police do. Once one gets away from slogans such as To Serve and Protect, the precise jobs police do are unclear.

Here is what is known about Toronto police. On average, each police officer arrests one person every seven weeks, and the vast majority of arrests do not involve violence. On each shift, an officer responds on average to one call from the public. Twice as much officer time is spent on each traffic accident involving personal injury today compared to five years ago.  

There’s an assumption that officers spend time making communities feel safe by doing foot and area patrols, but as many business improvement areas are learning, this is not something police say they have time to do. Chinatown businesses felt the police have given up on them; in mid-August they announced they were retaining a private security guard firm to do patrols police used to do. Such private patrols are also happening in Liberty Village.

Studies from 30 years ago showed that officers spent little more time in contact with the public than they appear to do today. The question that needs answering is—how do officers spend their time when they are on duty? Until we get that information and are satisfied that it is a good use of public dollars, I think we should be very careful about agreeing to devote more money to police officers.

The police budget is enormous: about $800 million a year, and this in a city where the city was unable to keep the skating rinks open for lack of $340,000, and cannot afford to keep school swimming pools open. If the arbitrator agrees to make Toronto officers the best paid in Ontario, maybe we should make do with fewer of them. This issue has become the subject of a personal dispute between Dave Wilson and the chair of the Board, Alok Mukherjee. After Mr. Wilson said he dreamed that the Toronto force would loose 800 officers, Mr. Mukherjee responded on his personal blog (available at that maybe he was worried that the 800 officers who, if they retired today would earn full pensions, would be forced to retire to pay for the elite status of highest paid in Canada.

We don’t get to answer the question about rates of pay—but through property taxes we pay for it. It would be good to get accurate information about how police spend the time on each shift.