Police chief’s budget plan is no game-changer

Contrary to intial reports, Bill Blair's proposal to flatline spending wouldn't actually reduce the size of the force, or even guarantee costs won't increase

A surprising headline appeared in the Toronto Star last week.  

“Chief Blair recommends police budget be flat-lined, force reduced,” it read.  

The story was unexpected because for at least the past four years, the ever-growing police budget has been the source of an annual fight at city hall. Each year the force’s civilian oversight board tries to rein in department spending, and each year the chief and the police union push for increases. The board always loses.  

That Blair would suddenly recommend no increase and even suggest reducing the size of the force seemed to come out of left field, and was hailed as a gift to incoming mayor John Tory, who has pledged to keep spending low. 

Had we reached a turning point in the efforts to control the police budget?  

Unfortunately, the answer appears to be: not yet.  

A closer look at Blair’s budget report reveals that, in two important ways, it’s not nearly as drastic a shift as initially reported.  

First, while the chief is recommending a zero-per-cent increase to the 2015 budget compared to 2014, his report does not factor in any additional costs associated with the new police contract. The current agreement expires on December 31, and the union and police services board are about to start negotiations for a new deal. Blair has no role in those negotiations and his report notes that the his budget request “does not include the impact of any salary settlement, as it is not known at this time.”  

The problem is that salaries are the single biggest driver of rising policing costs. Over the past 10 years, the force’s net budget has increased by $288 million, from $669.7 million to $957.7 million. Of that $288 million, 84 per cent, or $241 million, was growth in officers’ salaries and benefits.  

Because salaries represent 89 per cent of police spending, Blair’s proposal only holds the line on 11 per cent of the budget. So the chief is technically requesting no increase, but he’s only able to do so by ignoring the biggest elephant in the room.  

Second, Blair’s recommendation to “reduce” the size of the force wouldn’t actually lower the number of officers on the payroll. He proposes hiring civilians to do 43 jobs currently assigned to uniformed police (a process called civilianization), which his report says would lower the “approved uniformed deployment” from 5,505 to 5,462.  

But that 5,505 figure only represents the maximum number of officers that the board and city council have said the force can hire, not how many cops the city actually employs. For the past two years, the force has had an average deployed strength of 5,275 officers, well below the approved complement. Blair is requesting the exact same amount of officers next year: 5,275.  

So Blair’s budget would only reduce the number of officers the force is theoretically able to employ, not shrink it’s rank-and-file. In fact, Blair’s proposal recommends increasing the deployed complement to 5,392 officers by December 2016, 117 higher than the current level.  

(It’s also worth noting that civilianization is not a change of course. This year, 99 uniformed jobs were re-assigned to civilians, again without affecting the number of officers on staff.)  

All this isn’t to say that Blair’s report isn’t positive. David Soknacki, the former mayoral candidate who made cutting police costs a key part of his platform, believes the chief’s report will certainly “make the city’s budgeting somewhat easier.”  

But what’s needed, argues Soknacki, who is a member of Tory’s transition advisory council, is a top-to-bottom strategic review of how the force operates. He argues that we haven’t reassessed our policing priorities “in a generation,” and the force needs to reconsider how it allocates its resources to better reflect changing trends around issues like drug crime, domestic abuse, and mental health.

“It’s those structural changes that need consideration rather than just saying, here’s the size of the envelope, make it work,” he says. “We need to focus on what we want to do, and then figure out how to pay for it.”

John Sewell, the former mayor and head of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition, agrees. “Actually saying that you want to flat-line the budget, this is good. Is it good enough? No, I don’t think so. It’s not dealing with some of the big issues in expenditure.”   

As contract negotiations begin, police services board chair Alok Mukherjee might be eyeing some of those structural changes.  

“I am not under any illusion… the members will expect a wage increase, but I will be looking for other trade-offs” to offset any pay raise, he says in an interview.  

Asked if those trade-offs will include long-sought cost-saving reforms like changing the shift structure so that the city no longer pays for 28 hours of police work every 24 hours, or reducing the amount of time officers spend on community-based “proactive policing,” Mukherjee says he can’t disclose details of what concessions the board will be after.  

But “some of the things that people have talked about before will certainly be part of the conversation, in addition to which we have [identified] areas where there could be some give and take,” he says.

Negotiations are off to a rocky start. The board angered the police union last week by launching a website declaring “there needs to be a break to this cycle of ever escalating costs of policing.” 

The first talks were to take place on Monday, but Mukherjee says the union called them off.

bens@nowtoronto.com | @BenSpurr

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