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EDITORIAL (JULY 2016): Turning the Queen Mary

July 25th, 2016 · No Comments

The boldly named Transformational Task Force is a massive rethink of how the Toronto Police Service (TPS) spends over $1 billion each year as guardians of public safety. It has issued an interim report that is chock full of trial balloons worthy of serious consideration. However, there are some glaring omissions that are perhaps attributable to the fact that this is, after all, a review of the police by the police.

It really is trying to leapfrog to a more modern, efficient, transparent, and accountable public service.

Born of a longstanding frustration with the service’s seeming inability to come to grips with a budget that grows unstoppably, the task force deals with issues that go well beyond the accounting ledger. It really is trying to leapfrog to a more modern, efficient, transparent, and accountable public service. The political and temperamental alignment of this mayor, this premier, and, most importantly, this new police chief, is an opportunity that should not be squandered.

One cannot ignore the fact that last year 4,125 of the 7,800 uniform and civilian employees of the TPS were on the province’s Sunshine List, each earning $100,000 or more. About $900 million of the operating budget, or 89 per cent, is spent on salaries and benefits, and the service is locked into annual increases under a three-year collective agreement with the city. It’s no wonder the operating budget grows like it’s on autopilot.

Managing this expensive payroll and deploying the highly-trained staff to meet the shifting sands of crime incidents and crime prevention is key to spending precious public tax dollars effectively. After all, wage gains for police have gone up by 20 per cent since 2008 whilst crime rates have fallen. The police ought not to be exempt from the supply and demand economy. The task force was right to focus first on how police are deployed, suggesting using new technology and new thinking.

The 17 divisions from which the service operates no longer reflect the city’s individual neighbourhoods and their needs, so the task force recommends reducing the number of stations. In a positive, innovative step that would make the service more accessible and nimble, it would assign officers available by phone, email, text messages, social media, and via an enhanced TPS application, to work in specific neighbourhoods every day. Disbanding the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS) — a blunt instrument approach in which officers without local knowledge are parachuted into higher crime areas — is also a good idea.

The task force recommends a more triaged approach to 9-1-1 calls. At the moment, the police are the primary responders and the recommendation is that uniformed officers limit their attendance to when there is an immediate personal safety risk or an urgent investigative need.

Getting the TPS out of the business of managing lifeguards and crossing guards will bring savings too. Many of the recommendations suggest offloading duties placed on expensive uniformed officers onto civilians either within the force, in other city departments, or even in some cases, private security.

The recommendations around “culture change” are disappointing and a muddle of euphemisms. It may be impossible for the police themselves to talk about the “thin blue line” and whether or not it is appropriate to continue to pay suspended officers who have been charged with criminal offences. Constable James Forcillo, the convicted murderer of Sammy Yatim, is a shining example of what is wrong with this practice. Between this interim report and the final one, the task force should summon the courage to address some of the real issues around police culture.

Overall, the community-centred vision is laudable. The attempts at changing the engagement with neighbourhoods and the utilization of new technology will bring the police closer to the people whom they have pledged to protect.



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