Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Visualized: Why Toronto’s swelling police budget deserves to be an election issue

By: Metro Canada Published on Wed May 14 2014

It adds up to the single largest line item on your property tax bill, but it seems like very few mayoral candidates want to talk about the police budget.

There are some exceptions, thankfully. While Olivia Chow and John Tory have remained mostly silent on the issue, David Soknacki kicked off his campaign by calling for a strategic review of Toronto’s emergency services budgets, and further emphasized that need during his interview with Metro last month. We’ve also heard much on the issue from candidate Ari Goldkind, who is on record as saying the city needs to “trim the police budget beast.”

They both deserve kudos for that, because any fair reading of the city’s budget suggests tough political talk about finding efficiencies or containing costs at city hall won’t amount to much in the face of a police budget that is now in excess of $1 billion, and continues to grow every year. This isn’t something that can be just be swept under the rug. All evidence points to a need for the next mayor and council to address the size and scope of the police budget.

The fundamental problem with Toronto’s police budget is probably best summed up by this chart, culled from data provided by the Toronto Police Service Annual Statistical Report:

Over the last two decades, the amount Toronto spends per year on the police has effectively doubled, from around $500 million in 1993 to more $1 billion in 2012, the most recent year for which we have a full account of spending. Over the same period, the number of criminal offences reported and recorded by police have been cut in half — from nearly 300,000 in 1993 to about 150,000 in 2012. Those figures include everything from homicide to criminal traffic offences such as DUI.

That’s a steep drop, especially when you factor in population growth. Toronto added 474,850 residents over that time period. On a per-capita basis, criminal offences per resident dropped from 0.12 to 0.05.

The chart does change a bit when you factor in inflation. I used the Bank of Canada’s calculator to convert the police budget to constant 2014 dollars. The inflation adjusted version of the chart looks like this:

Even with the inflation factor, the police budget has still seen steady increases, averaging about 1.4 per cent per year since 1993. On a per-capita basis, the budget has grown from $284.74 per Toronto resident at its low point in 1998 to $365.50 in 2012. But those increases didn’t just disappear into a black hole — more than 553 uniformed officers were added over that time.

If crime indicators were increasing or even holding steady, those numbers wouldn’t really be anything to quibble with. But let’s look at the inflation-adjusted police budget per criminal offence:

In 1993, the Toronto Police had a budget — in present-day dollars — of $2,759.98 per criminal offence. In 2012, that figure rose to $6,760.70. In other words, it doubled. And then it went up some more.

All this data goes to show that this isn’t a simple question of budgetary excess. This isn’t something that can be solved by yelling a bit and demanding unspecified efficiencies, as Mayor Rob Ford tried to do over the past couple of years. Instead, we need to be thinking about the kind of police force Toronto needs given the current reality of falling crime rates.

That means thinking about how many uniformed police officers Toronto needs on the street. It means thinking about public safety more broadly, incorporating urban design, planning and social programs. It means really thinking about what Toronto residents need to feel safe — and to be safe.

Big questions, I know. But it’s a big budget, and what’s an election for if not asking the big questions?

This post was originally published at on 2014-05-14T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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