The incredible disappearing police budget

The Toronto Police Service has often been described as having a culture of impunity. That has now extended to how the TPS spends money. 

Three months ago I filed an access-to-information request for a copy of the detailed budget for police spending in 2016. Last year, I obtained a copy of the detailed budget, some 750 pages, after much questioning. 

But this year no such document seems to exist – at least for public consumption – which means there is no way to hold any particular division or department or unit accountable for what it is spending. 

As extraordinary as it seems, the Toronto Police Services Board never bothered to ask police brass how the $1 billion approved this year would be spent. 

When the board approved police spending of $1.006 billion in 2016 on November 12, it was presented with a six-page summary with very limited information.

There were no details about how much would be allocated for TAVIS (the program for police sweeps of poor neighbourhoods) for the mounted unit for each of the 17 police divisions for the guns and gangs unit for new carbine guns, tasers and assault rifles and for the various detective units.

A detailed budget would not be presented to the board, nor was it made public like every other city department’s budget.

Finally, at the end of January, I received a response to my request from the police service’s access-to-information office: “After consulting with members of our Budget & Control Office, our office was notified that a 2016 Operating Budget Report (similar to budget reports prepared in prior years) was not requested by the TPSB for 2016. Therefore, a 2016 Operating Budget Report was not prepared.”

The meaning was perfectly clear: staff were saying that a 2016 operating budget had never been prepared. I was dumbfounded. 

A reporter colleague asked Mayor John Tory if a budget had been presented to the board in November. He said that of course one had and that it would be made public without delay. That was on February 1. 

A week or so later I contacted Andy Pringle, the chair of the board, who said the same thing. But no budget has yet been produced. 

Then police staff got back in touch with me to say that there was a budget but that it would take two weeks to put it in presentable form. They asked if I wanted staff to do that work. I replied that it might be easier to meet staff so they could show me what Tory said had been presented to the board. I was told that would not be possible but that Tony Veneziano, the force’s chief administrative officer, would be in touch. He has yet to call.

My conclusion from this sequence of events is that there is, in fact, no detailed police budget. And the board never asked how the $1 billion would be spent. It just set an expenditure limit and let the police management spend as it wants. This is a reckless way to govern. 

The error was compounded at City Hall, where the absence of a detailed accounting by police was not raised as a concern by a single councillor during last week’s budget debate. The fear of criticizing the police has now extended to as basic a requirement as a detailed budget. 

Should the members of the Toronto Police Services Board be removed for their inability to reasonably manage the force? Should the chief be removed for not providing a budget? As interested citizens, what do we do about this mess?

John Sewell is a former mayor of Toronto. He is coordinator of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition. His most recent book is How We Changed Toronto, 1969-1980 (Lorimer, 2015).

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