How will Toronto police spend a billion dollars?

Freedom of Information request for details yields no new information


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Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders should be more transparent than his predecessor

No one doubts the sophisticated nature of the cultural scene in Toronto. Some of us might not jump to the way the rapper Drake refers to our city as “the 6” or gush over the performances of Opera Atelier, but most of us recognize that there’s a big rich world of culture in our city.

But are we ready for a Potemkin budget? Or does that push the boundaries of culture beyond the acceptable?

Gigory Potemkin was a lover of Catherine the Great, and governor of southern Ukraine and the Crimea. To show her allies how strong Russia was if war broke out with the Ottoman Empire, Catherine barged down the Dnieper River. It was a pretty desolate place, so to make it attractive to Catherine and her dignitaries, Potemkin created movable villages, which could be set up and dismantled in short order. Just before Catherine’s barge would arrive, a town would be in place, populated by Potemkin’s men dressed as peasants. The barge would move on, the town would be dismantled, then reconstructed a bit further down the river before the barge came into sight.

A Potemkin village is a fake, only there for the show. A Potemkin budget would be a mirage, one that doesn’t have a real form or any substantiality. I think we have one in Toronto. 

The 2016 operating budget of the Toronto Police Service fits the Potemkin mould. They say it exists but no one is allowed to see it. 

On Nov. 12, the Toronto Police Services Board, led by Mayor John Tory, agreed that total net police spending for 2016 would be $1,006.7 million, that is, just over one billion dollars. A six-page summary budget was filed as well as two brief reports from Chief Saunders, but there was no detailed budget. The summary gave one-line explanations, for instance showing that $526 million would be spent on uniformed staff and $138 million on civilians. There was no breakdown of staff allocation, the functions performed or the change from last year.

Since October, I and others have asked the board to make public the complete line-by-line budget. The board has consistently declined to do so. In mid-November I filed a Freedom of Information request to get a copy of the police operating budget. Surely there’s a problem with transparency when a city department refuses to make its budget public, but apparently that concern is not shared by the mayor or the other six members of the board.

Finally in mid-January, I received an answer to my FOI request: I was sent the same material that had been before the board in November. I was not provided with the full budget reflecting the way the police department wishes to spend public money in 2016. Maybe the police just want a pot of a billion dollars that they can spend as they want without any real constraints. That would be why they pretend there’s a budget but never agree to show it. Potemkin would understand.

My experience in regard to the police budget is not good.

A year ago, after the board had approved an expenditure limit of $980 million, the board finally released the full 750-page budget for 2015. I found to my surprise it bore little relation to what then Chief Bill Blair said about it in his reports to the board. For instance, the full 2015 budget stated that each of the 17 divisions would lose 10 police officers for a total reduction of some 172 front line officers. As we know, that never occurred, and since the Police Association never objected to such a chopping of staff, it is fair to say that the budget was never intended to reflect real-life expenditure. There were a number of discrepancies that I publicly wrote about at that time.

Is there a real police budget for 2016? If so, how does it relate to the unusual 2015 budget? What does it say about those 172 officers that were to be let go? Living in the age of high culture in Toronto, I suspect the best we will get is a Potemkin police budget: smoke and mirrors, illusion but no solid figures meant to direct and constrain police spending.

Board chair Andy Pringle has said he wants to create a process that will begin looking at real change in the police department. Making public a police operating budget for 2016 might be a good place to start.

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Post City Magazines’ columnist John Sewell is a former mayor of Toronto and the author of a number of urban planning books, including The Shape of the Suburbs.

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