In a move that introduces the unprecedented spectre of police layoffs in Toronto, the city has asked Chief Bill Blair to explore reducing the number of officers under his command by 10 per cent - down to levels not seen since Mel Lastman was in office.
At a Toronto Police Services Board on Monday, Councillor Michael Thompson asked the chief to look at how much money the city could save by dropping 500 uniformed officers and 300 civilian members of the Toronto Police Services, the country's largest municipal force.
The request seemed to catch the chief off guard. "Frankly, we have no historical precedent for doing that in Ontario," he said of layoffs. "It requires a high degree of research."
Over the past 10 years, the force has boosted its ranks from 4,900 to 5,600, nudging its total budget to $930-million, or one-tenth of all the money City Hall spends. In that same period, crime in Toronto has plunged by a third.
With city councillors facing a $774-million shortfall, Mr. Blair's hefty slice of the budget pie is under more scrutiny than at any time in recent memory.
"I'm not advocating for layoffs, but certainly because of the pressures we're under I think it's appropriate for us to look at all options," said Mr. Thompson, vice-chair of the board. "The deployment level we've been working with has been arbitrarily derived. I'm not sure that is appropriate."
The meeting was called so police brass could present a $970-million preliminary budget request for 2012 to the board. The sum represents a 4.2-per-cent increase in the TPS budget, well short of a goal to trim costs by 10 per cent.
"I would have hoped the target would have been met," said Mr. Thompson. "But this is a first blush."
According to the budget report, the force could cut an additional $17-million by deferring all uniform hiring in 2012, reducing reserve account contributions and slicing 10 per cent from premium pay for court appearances, overtime, callback and lieu time. The police are also conducting an internal core services review to recommend possible cutbacks.
But reaching the full 10-per-cent reduction is a pipe dream, according to police union head Mike McCormack, especially considering that nine out of every 10 dollars the force spends goes to salaries and benefits.
"I don't think that's realistic," he said, adding that layoffs on the scale Mr. Thompson is suggesting would give him serious concerns about public safety.
Mr. Blair suggested entire units could be ditched if he lost 500 officers, but that the impact of cuts wouldn't be known until his staff can complete a report, expected by the end of June.
"I don't want to mislead the board and the public to suggest that if you have 400 fewer people, or more, that it would just be business as usual," said Mr. Blair. "There is a threshold upon which I think we would have to make some very difficult decisions about the services we would cease to fund, perhaps units we would cease to staff."