Sewell: Cop-budget savings could aid at-risk youth

By John Sewell –

You never know when constructive debate might break out, so I was surprised when it occurred in the midst of a fairly sleepy meeting of the Toronto Police Services Board on Sept. 20.

I had just made a presentation on the recently released compendium of police info found in the 2008 Environmental Scan issued by the Toronto police force. (Highlights can be found on the agenda of the board meeting at, click on Agenda and scroll down to page 15.) I was making my usual pitch about the light police work load (52,600 arrests per year, or nine per officer per year, seven or eight of which did not involve a crime of violence) and an average of 170 calls for service per officer per year, or two calls for every three shifts. I said the board should evaluate programs to ensure they are effective, find ways to contain the police budget, and enhance efficiency in the use of police resources.

I said it seemed that to compensate for so little to do, officers spend more time on each task. Citing figures from the Scan, I noted the number of officers dispatched to each event has substantially increased in the last decade, and the total time spent on each event has increased 50%.

The average time spent at each personal-injury motor vehicle collision has increased to 4.2 hours from three hours a decade ago.

None of this data is new. Previous Environmental Scans have come to exactly the same conclusions with similar recommendations regarding the unacceptability of the increased time spent on traffic accidents and services calls, but nothing was done.

I stopped and that’s when debate broke out. Chief Bill Blair said it wasn’t fair to measure police work only by the number of arrests and service calls. One also had to take into account police work in communities, crime prevention, and police attempts to build relationships. Maybe police work—such as the recently initiated police in schools—should be measured in the improvement of safety in schools and the success of students.

Other board members—particularly Hamlin Grainge and Pam McConnell—waded in with similar comments. I tried to make the point that if these were considered important activities maybe we should have some data about them—time spent, indices of success, specific program and so forth—but there’s no data in the current Scan.

The chief said we should look at outputs: crime is down this year 11%; auto thefts are down this year 28%; break and entry crimes are down 17%. A board member said a lot of police resources were put into administration—that is managing everyone else rather than doing actual police work.

I said there are many academic studies that indicate there is no link between numbers of police and crime rates, and crime rates often change because of external factors.

(The introduction of crack cocaine caused a big spike in street crime a decade ago; the introduction of global positioning Systems for new vehicles has decreased car thefts.)

It was 40 minutes of real talk, a real exchange of opinions and alternatives, something that only rarely occurs at Police Board meetings. My impression is that everyone in the room thought it was interesting and helpful. After all, policing issues don’t get much public discussion.

Whether it will help to get a better handle on improving productivity and efficiency in the police remains to be seen. If just 2% could be shaved from police expenditures this year, that would represent $16 million which could be put into services for youth, services that have been shown conclusively to reduce criminal involvement of kids. That, rather than the continued cry for more gun laws, would have a positive impact on kids’ use of guns.

That’s why the debate is so important.