Taming the Police Budget

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Obviously a police force is essential to a city’s well-being, but like many other areas of urban life, the Toronto Police Services (TPS) is being run from above in a style that is behind the times, and this is something that I want to change.

Eighty-seven percent of the police budget is spent on salaries, leaving just the other thirteen percent for the rest – cars, equipment, weapons, etc., stuff that is easy to track. But a big question looms – what are we getting for our billion dollars? How are we using our officers? Is our money serving our city in the best way it can?

I have talked to a lot of smart people about the business of policing, and I feel that there are three fundamental changes that need to happen in order to create a more effective police force, as well as to better use the public money that funds it.

1. Long-term stable funding. There has to be a cap on the funds available, and with it a corresponding discipline to use the funds wisely. When people in either the public or private sector take on a project, mindful that there is a limitless supply of money to play with, the scope of the project grows, and both mistakes and modifications are simply paid for by dipping once more into the trough. This cannot continue. It is essential to contain budget growth, the way a number of Federal departments have done, including the Armed Forces. Basically we say, “For the next ten years, this is the amount we can give you. Don’t ask for more. Don’t ask for salary increases. Here’s your budget, work with it.”

What closed budgets can do – instead of major cuts – is to find efficiencies. These may come in the reallocation of officers into a) shorter, healthier shifts; b) the full adoption of new, smart technologies such as license plate readers and lapel cameras to cut down on officers being tied up in court or bureaucracy on company time; and c) the reallocation of officers by skill and training, relying more on specialized ability to handle a particular type of crisis than to merely pile officers on and risk the type of tunnel vision and groupthink.

It is not so much a matter of doing more with less money, as it is of doing things better with the finite resources at hand, and with the police force finally understanding the mindset that we are in this together, it is not us vs. them, and they are there to serve and protect us, not vice versa.

2. Every dollar must be spent to its greatest possible effect. Nothing remotely like this happens today. This requires a revision of the reporting structure within the TPS. It is often assumed, for example, that the Police Chief is responsible for financial and strategic issues as well as operational. But this is incorrect. Like many other forces, the TPS has a Chief Administrative Officer (CAO). It also has a seven member civilian body that oversees and governs the TPS, called the Police Services Board. So in theory, the Police Chief should report to the board on all things related to policing matters – operational, tactical, law enforcement – all the things related to the actual work of policing the city, and the CAO should report to board on all matters dealing with policy and finance.

In short, we need a professional fiscal manager in charge of money, not a senior, seasoned police officer who quite understandably wants access to as many of our dollars as possible.

Toronto is a city with a budget greater than the four Atlantic Provinces. Yet they have better fiscal accountability structures. We need to become more professional in how we run this city’s police force, and we also need to divide the labour. It is surely not the best use of the Chief’s time to report on the budget. His best use would be implanting the will and directives of Step 3, below.

3. City council and the mayor must be much more involved in setting the priorities for their police service.  The talents of our officers are underused and certain types of crimes and social problems are being neglected.

Chicago’s new mayor pulled 500 officers off the street and focused them on “guns and gangs.” He felt that’s what was needed to be contained. If it meant fewer speeding tickets being handed out, well, so be it. We can’t have everything.

If I were Mayor, I too would be clear as to the priorities of the TPS: mental health-related issues, guns/gangs/firearms, and cybercrime. Currently I feel too much focus is placed on drugs, and too little on everything else.

We don’t talk enough about qualitative aspects of policing.  What’s the best way to deliver a police service?  For example, dealing with an individual who has mental health issues? Is it ideal for a senior officer making $100,000 a year to show up on scene, just because he is on shift at that moment, with his gun visible, or would it be better for us to dispatch non uniformed or non police specialists with mental health training?

I want to limit the number of people running around with guns, dealing with issues that other agencies are better equipped to deal with. If we place the TPS under budgetary pressures, it might actually force a situation in which fewer officers crowd the scene, making way for alternative methods for neutralizing and de-escalating the situation.

Here’s an example:  shootings of people with mental health issues tend to happen in cities – built up areas – as opposed to rural. Why? When an OPP officer or Mountie in a rural scenario knows that the nearest backup might be an hour away, then the situation cannot be escalated; the officer must de-escalate – calm it. However in a built-up location, when a first-on-scene officer knows s/he can call for backup, then 12 more officers show up instantly, and situations like Sammy Yatim happen.

A modern city needs a modern police force, in which resources, incentives and mindset are used differently.  There should be incentives for city officers to de-escalate a situation. This builds and enhances trust. Quality police work can come from reduced access to resources, rather than just piing on; it’s a matter of mindset.

Basically what I am looking for here is an outside-in approach. To work with Queen’s Park to establish a budget on the outside and force the TPS to become more efficient through the assignment and training of their officers. Like every other organization. I am tired of seeing our city grinding along, dominated by archaic thinking and 1960’s attitude.  As mayor, I don’t want a budget for a “police service” in which payroll counts for more than talent does. I want a budget that will achieve outcomes: a smart budget for a smart police force in a growing, intelligent city.

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