Pardon the expression, but mayor David Miller should have stuck to his guns and let his community safety initiatives take effect, says his budget chief. Instead, he's spending money the city doesn't have on more police officers to combat the latest outbreak of deadly gun violence. Why the sudden switch?
Miller says it became clear to him that more police were needed on the street when four-year-old Shaquan Cadougan was wounded in a drive-by shooting in the Jane-Finch area on August 3.
"My mood changed," says the mayor, who was criticized for reacting too slowly to the wave of gunfire that intensified while he was away on vacation with his family. "All shootings are bad, but it's absolutely outrageous that somebody would drive by and shoot a four-year-old.
"People's moods changed around that. They wanted a strong law enforcement response, and they've been getting it."Miller insists he's always been a strong supporter of putting more cops on the street, but wouldn't consider hiring new officers until police spending was under control.
He says that's been done with Blair in charge at 40 College Street, and the time seemed right to take advantage of a provincial government cost-sharing program that will make the enlistment of 150 new recruits affordable.
"When you have officers on their feet in communities and build trust with residents, you create a culture of safety," Miller says. "If 150 officers will help make that happen in more communities, then it's worth every penny."
Budget chief David Soknacki has a different view. He says Miller's plan to hire 150 new cops is an "overreaction" to a short-term "spike" in firearm-related homicides that's going to cause long-term financial trouble for Toronto council and taxpayers.
"I understand that there is a crying need to do something," says the councillor for Ward 43 (Scarborough East). "My concern is that the mayor has chosen an expensive option when perhaps his walking with officers in affected neighbourhoods might have an equal impact."
Such statements from the conservative chair of council's budget advisory committee are sure to stun some of his right-wing colleagues at City Hall who've long been pushing Miller to hike the police department's $700 million budget to put more cops on the street.
But Soknacki says the chief magistrate had it right when his community safety panel started targeting troubled communities with after-school programs, enhanced parks-and-rec opportunities and job skills training to help prevent at-risk youth from falling into crime (see sidebar). That, combined with a redeployment of police officers to trouble spots in the city, is the way to go, the budget chief asserts.
He recalls that "last year, my ward was living with the spike of the Galloway Boys gang." The year before, it was Ward 42 (Scarborough-Rouge River) that had to deal with "the spike of gangs in Malvern." But by reallocating officers and working with residents of stricken neighbourhoods (by "being both hard-assed and community-sensitive," Soknacki calls the strategy), the crisis was alleviated. And he's convinced such tactics would be equally effective in other areas plagued by gang-related shootings this summer.
That's much the same attitude Miller had when former police chief Julian Fantino and his law-and-order supporters on council were pushing for more money to hire extra cops during the past two years' budget deliberations. And the mayor is still putting a heavy emphasis on the community safety aspects of crime prevention that have been embraced by new police Chief Bill Blair.
Miller, however, is convinced this year's outbreak of gun violence is more than just another "spike" in an otherwise declining crime rate.
But as Soknacki points out, it takes at least nine months to put recruits through the police training program.
"Hiring now will bring more people onstream to deal with the problems of 2006, 2007 and 2008," the budget chief says. "But we don't know what those future problems are going to be. And we have a problem now."
Furthermore, the provincial cost-sharing program is a one-year deal. After that, Soknacki says, city taxpayers will have to pick up the entire tab for the new officers' salaries - something in the neighbourhood of $13 million annually.
"It's really unsexy to keep reminding people that we already have this half-billion-dollar hole [in our operating budget], and in that hole are social programs, public transit, our roads and public safety.
"If we make that hole larger to cope with an immediate demand [for more police], we have to realize that it's going to mean readjusting some of those other priorities."
Miller, on the other hand, maintains there's an increased willingness on the part of criminals to use firearms, and "it's incredibly important that we don't let that get out of control. "We need a strong law enforcement response to guns, period."