1. Does Toronto have too many cops?
It's the question on everyone's lips as we engage in yet another police budget exercise - and all the dirty politics that goes with it. Mike McCormack, president of the Police Association, might want to rephrase that question to ask, "How many police officers does Toronto need?" It's a subtle difference. The short answer: we're about to find out.
A consultant will be hired this month to slice and dice that question, and the results will be ready in the spring. What we know: Ernst & Young concluded in the city's 2011 Core Services Review that the force could do with up to 115 fewer officers, saving us $9 million per year. But that "cookie cutter" approach, as McCormack calls it, doesn't show the whole picture.
In terms of officers per capita, T.O. has only slightly more now (206 per 100,000 population) than 10 years ago (203).
Toronto's force ranks in the middle of the pack, 25th among the 60 police forces in North America and Australia in Ernst & Young's study.
Also, while crime rates are substantially down, some 17 per cent in all major categories since Bill Blair took over seven years ago, that doesn't mean police are spending more time at Tim Hortons. The number of calls for service has remained relatively constant over the years.
Ernst & Young's review revealed that, on average, police here are dealing with only one fewer major crime per shift than cops in comparable forces.
2. Will flatlining the police budget pose a serious risk to public safety?
A lot is getting lost in translation where the 2013 police budget is concerned. It's not layoffs Ford & Co. are asking for - although it may come to that in future. It's a 0 per cent increase, which in real terms adds up to a budget of $927.8 million, or $19.1 million less than Blair asked for.
Not a large difference, except the problem is that Blair's already working with 226 fewer officers than the target deployment of 5,604 approved by the Police Services Board and city council because of hiring freezes in the last two years. And that's not counting the personnel the cops lose every year to retirements and resignations.
The 2013 budget includes money for 80 new recruits. But it's unclear where the money will come from to bring them on staff once they've finished their training. Buried in the numbers is the fact that community foot patrols are the first to go when police budgets are squeezed.
And the pinch is only going to get worse in 2014. The force anticipates it'll need a 4.4 per cent increase, roughly $40 million, to cover the cost of the 3 per cent salary increase handed the police union in that four-year deal signed in 2010.
It's then that we'll start seeing the real effects of Ford's zero budget increases, including longer wait times for 911 callers, the closing of certain police stations at night and the consolidation of dispatch services among police divisions, which may effect emergency response times.
3. Is the chief posturing when he says there's no room for cuts?
Yes and no. When 90 per cent of the police budget is for salaries, benefits and premium pay, there's not much to trim.
There's some evidence that the force may be a little top-heavy, with 23 more sergeants than it needs. Ernst & Young's report also notes that lower-paid civilian staff could take over as many as 227 jobs currently performed by sworn officers.
It would be one thing if the budget pressure were really designed to get the brass thinking about how to deploy resources in a new, more effective way. But the force has been adjusting how it delivers and deploys its services for the better part of Blair's tenure.
One-cop patrol cars, an idea that's been floated to cut costs, are already a reality in non-emergency-response situations. Whether that should be the norm raises safety issues for the cops themselves, which the police union has declared it's prepared to challenge under the collective agreement.
Some attention has been paid to the premium pay cops receive for attending court, but the $23 million spent on that represents a small percentage of the budget. The question for some is why cops aren't going to court during regular shifts instead of getting overtime to do it on days off?
That's what they did until 2006, but cops were missing too many court dates because of shift obligations, and people they'd arrested, some for revenue-generating provincial offences, were getting off at a 63 per cent rate.
4. Has the mayor put the chief in an untenable position?
Ford's reasons for cutting the cop budget are as political as they are financial. The guy who promised 100 more cops has delivered hiring freezes instead.
He wants to look like he's getting tough on the police. If he can embarrass Blair in the process and get rid of him, that'd be gravy. The two have been playing cat-and-mouse on the budget since day one.
But Ford himself put the force's management in this bind. It was the mayor, after all, early in his term, who signed the lucrative deal with the Police Association that's handcuffed the chief.
If it weren't for that pay hike, the force's budget request for 2013 would be $25 million smaller, $6 million below the zero target set by the mayor's office. That's the bottom line.
5. Are we condemned to ever-increasing police budgets?
We live in strange times when the left, which has traditionally been wary of ballooning police budgets, is advocating more money for the cops and the right, which in the past has spared no expense to push a law-and-order agenda, is pushing cuts. Is the long-term goal privatization? The Police Services Board has instructed the chief to "review and consider all outsourcing opportunities."
Instead of cutting the crap out of the police and compromising public safety, we could move to a province-wide system of bargaining when it comes to policing.
The idea has been floated by current board chair Alok Mukherjee, and it makes sense. The province currently appoints it own members to police boards. It also regulates policing. The Ontario Civilian Police Commission is the appeal body for police labour disputes. We already send all trainees to one police college.
Province-wide bargaining would eliminate the wage race between police unions - escalating demands that put upward pressure on negotiations with their respective boards.
At the very least, it would end the shell game we're currently engaged in that ultimately pushes the real costs of policing down the pipeline for future councils to deal with.