Tricky move captures additional tax money for police

By John Sewell – 

When the city’s budget committee threatened to limit the budget increase to the Toronto police service to $33 million while the police wanted an extra $37 million, the Police Service Board responded with a counter-intuitive strategy that was absolutely brilliant.

Sure, said the chief and the board, we’ll agree to limit our budget this year to $888 million rather than the $892 million we have asked for, but on the condition that we be allowed to increase the number of officers by 40, from the 5,548 we’re currently allowed to hire, to 5,588. And we’ll do it by hiring these extra officers toward the end of the year so the cost of them will not be felt until 2011. In the interim, we’ll make do with the $33 million increase from the 2009 budget.

The budget committee bought the idea, and it looks like city council will too when it holds its budget meeting in mid-April.

It is a double whammy. The police budget is increasing from $855 million last year to $888 this year while most other city services are being flat-lined or cut, and next year the costs will balloon to pay for the 40 new officers just taken on staff.

What is driving the staff increase seems to be a desire by city politicians and the police service to expand the police force into the Toronto transit service.

Late in 2008 the police service added 38 new positions to have a presence on the transit service, using federal money to hire these officers. (This is part of Steven Harper’s program to spend more money on police and prisons as crime continues to fall across Canada.) It was originally said that this would save money since the TTC special constables were thought to be paid more than police officers, but that proved not to be the case when a careful study was done.

In late 2009 the city said it wanted even more officers on transit, and agreed to pony up $1.8 million to pay for them. The police service was more than happy to agree.

That’s the extra 40 officers who will be hired this year. So while the police service had an approved staffing level of 5,510 officers in November 2009, now 15 months later the approved level is 5,588. This is serious staff growth.

Obviously, one big question is whether the city can afford this kind of police staffing. Data has just been released on civil servants making more than $100,000 a year, and on that score the police do very well: some 1329 officers, or about 23% of the uniformed force, make more than $100,000 a year. That’s good for them but it is probably not sustainable for the city as a funder with many other financial responsibilities.

The other question is whether it makes sense to have the police expand into schools and transit and who knows where else. The police do not have a monopoly on safety and security issues. Many other people in society provide those services for much less cost.

Private security officers in shopping malls, sports arenas, office towers and airports provide surveillance and security at a fraction of the cost of public police. The greeter at the GAP store plays a critical security role, saying a friendly hello to indicate you are being watched in case you think you might shoplift. Some business improvement areas provide security officers to look after the interests of retailers and customers. Teachers in schools play important security roles as an adjunct to their teaching roles, although they are being replaced as the police officers muscle in to play disciple in the schools.

We need to take a much broader look at how security actually comes about in cities. Jane Jacobs has shown the importance of “eyes on the street” for security, and that’s a matter of good urban design as well as reasonable densities and mixed uses so there are usually people on the street looking out for others. Police don’t play an important role in security and crime prevention: their emphasis is much more on trying to catch those who commit crimes. As studies have shown, police presence does little to reduce crime.

We all want society to be as safe as possible. But spending more money on public police is not a good way to get there, particularly if it means taking money from other important city services.