February 26, 2010
Harvey G. Simmons
As the candidates for mayor of Toronto jostle for position, each of them has suggestions for dealing with the city’s budget deficit: outsource Toronto Hydro, says Rocco Rossi; get the province to kick in more money, says Joe Pantalone; do business in a different way, says Giorgio Mammoliti; freeze hiring for all but essential services, says George Smitherman.
But none of the candidates has dared mention the elephant in the room – the Toronto police budget that stands at nearly $1 billion per year for operating expenses. The police now consume more of Toronto’s operating budget than the fire service, Emergency Medical Services and public health combined.
Even worse, how many Torontonians know, when they howl in frustration at yet another hike in property taxes, that a greater percentage of these dollars – 24 per cent – goes to the police than to the TTC, public health, children’s services and Emergency Medical Services combined?
And yet, on the political front there is dead silence.
It’s no wonder. The Toronto police enjoy enormous popularity with the public, they have a powerful and combative union behind them, a supportive media and politicians who, even if they know that police costs have to be brought under control, are not willing to risk their political futures by calling for a halt.
But the truth is that there is no relation between numbers of police officers, police expenditures and the crime rate. Whatever the police may say or the public may believe, studies show that the crime rate seems to rise or fall according to a complex series of factors, such as the shape of the economy, wages, incarceration rates or changes in the market for illegal drugs.
Spending more money on the police, hiring more officers or linking crime to the availability of abortion (the “freakonomics” school argues that the rise in the abortion rate in the U.S. contributed to a reduction in crime) does not explain the crime rate.
In other words, the Toronto Police Service really has no good grounds for arguing that more money and more police officers will help in the fight against crime. Yet the role of the police in society continues to expand and the demands on our tax dollars mount as they take on activities previously reserved for other professions, such as social work.
Recently, in a move prompted by the Jordan Manners murder in a Toronto high school and by a few violent incidents near schools, the police put 36 officers in Toronto schools and 12 in the Catholic school system.
Ostensibly these officers play a public safety role, but in its recently published 2010 list of priorities the Toronto Police Service now wants to develop “a prevention and education initiative, in partnership with school boards, relating to child and youth victimization in the areas of bullying and cyber-bullying.”
But do we really need armed, uniformed police officers in schools to teach children not to be bullies? Is this not one example of what Toronto Police Services Board chair Alok Mukherjee calls “a mismatch between what local policing actually does and what it is supposed to do”?
There is only one effective solution to the problem of the police budget. Freeze it. Tell the police that enough is enough: we have enough officers and they have enough money. Tell the police we don’t want yet more of our property taxes to go to the police. Tell the Toronto Police Service there will be a freeze on hiring and a freeze on the budget and that in the foreseeable future it, along with the police services board, will have to decide how its existing funds are best spent.
This will have all kinds of beneficial effects. It will force the police to decide exactly what is essential to policing in Toronto and what is not; whether, for example, the police want to spend their limited funds on lecturing schoolchildren on bullying, or putting more officers on the street, or in anti-gang activities, or something else. It will force the police to look for savings from within their own budget rather than draining even more tax dollars from other services where needs may be greater.
And it will call attention to the fact that throwing more money at the police and hiring police officers is not an effective way to reduce crime or use public money. In fact, years ago Britain’s Margaret Thatcher slashed the police budget and the result was a slimmer but more efficient and effective police force.
But this is election year in Toronto and all signs indicate that none of the current candidates for mayor will have the courage to tackle the really tough problem of out-of-control police expenditures.
Harvey G. Simmons is a member of the executive of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition and professor emeritus, York University. firstname.lastname@example.org