Could Toronto police be made to answer to the city for their out-of-control budget?
While other public services are forced to deal with aggressive cuts, policing in Toronto has proven to be austerity-proof, its cost rising faster than the rate of inflation, the size of the population or even the number of police personnel. As it becomes increasingly evident the Toronto Police Service’s swelling budget isn’t sustainable, more and more public officials are calling for reform. Now, Toronto’s auditor general, Beverly Romeo-Beehler, has joined the fray, complaining to city councillors that the police (along with the libraries and Toronto Public Health) aren’t under her office’s purview, and ought to be. She and some city councillors want the City of Toronto Act amended to give her automatic access to police financials, without having to ask permission first.
WOULD IT WORK?
Currently, the auditor general is free to launch spending probes into some city organizations and not others. Nobody seems to know why the access is so patchy, but a motion by councillor Josh Matlow, adopted by the Audit Committee on May 22, tries to simplify the issue. It asks city council to begin the process of figuring out what it would take to give the auditor general power to audit freely.
The Toronto Police Service, of all city agencies, is in most need of review. The city invests a billion dollars annually into municipal policing, and it’s not entirely clear how well that money is being spent. One point of contention is the fact that Toronto police seem to earn a lot of extra money on top of their regular salaries: the Ontario Provincial Police have about as many employees as TPS, but only claim about a tenth as much overtime, according to Christian Leuprecht, a political science professor who researches police finances.
“It’s difficult for city council to see in considerable detail where exactly all the money goes,” says Leuprecht. “The police services tend to retain that information and simply provide audited statements that show that their spending practices are in line with normal fiscal administration.”
The auditor general already conducts some audits for TPS, but usually at the request of the Toronto Police Services Board and with the permission of the police chief. TPS has its own audit office, which works exclusively for the chief of police, and whose audits aren’t necessarily visible to anyone else.
Giving the auditor general the access she wants would mean changing the City of Toronto Act, the piece of provincial legislation that gives the municipal government its powers. To make that happen, city council would have to make a formal request of Queen’s Park. This could turn out to be more complicated than it seems, because TPS hasn’t traditionally been governed by the City of Toronto Act, but by the Police Services Act, a different piece of legislation entirely. Toronto’s model of policing is based on keeping the two separate.
Leuprecht agrees that keeping a distinction is important. “We want to keep the politicians out of the policing business,” he says. “But we do want to make sure that politicians hold security organizations to account.” Although Matlow’s motion to give the auditor general unencumbered access to police financials makes intuitive sense, especially given the budget’s untenable trajectory, the hurdles it needs to overcome aren’t just practical but ideological. The Toronto Police Service has always operated independently, and putting its books under the City of Toronto Act could undermine that. No doubt the opposition from the police will be fierce, as they defend their autonomy. If things don’t work out, this won’t be the first time the city has failed to overcome police stubbornness.