Toronto police have won a fight with city hall for a budget increase, but councillors and experts say that funding now comes with heightened expectations that they’ll lower response times to emergency calls in the next 12 months.
City council voted Wednesday to grant Toronto police their full budget increase of $20 million on their $1.2 billion spending plan. That is instead of the $7.4 million increase initially recommended by both Mayor Olivia Chow and city staff.
It came after both the police service and the association representing officers waged aggressive campaigns to convince council and Toronto residents that not receiving that full request created an “unacceptable risk” to public safety.
Much of the police argument was premised on the need to address 22-minute-long response times to the highest priority emergency calls. Chief Myron Demkiw said the service needs to hire hundreds more officers to address response times.
Moments after council approved the full increase, Demkiw stressed that reducing wait times is a complicated process, though he “will do everything possible.”
“I think the ability to bring response times down is impacted by many, many variables, some of which are well beyond our control,” he said.
“I think what I will tell you is that we’ll be transparent and open about the impact of all those variables on our ability to drive response times down.”
On Thursday, in an interview with CBC Radio’s Here & Now, Demkiw said the service will be closely monitoring response times in 2024.
“I do expect change during the course of the year in the right direction,” he said. “I do expect the response times to start to come down.”
City councillors pushing for results
When councillors voted to give the police service the additional money, they also adopted a series of requests of Demkiw. That includes cutting officer response times, increasing frontline and neighbourhood officers and providing a long-term hiring plan for the service.
After first pushing against the hike, Mayor Olivia Chow reversed course and backed it. She made it clear that the police service was being given the extra funding to lower emergency call response times — and she expects it will start to happen this year.
“When you pay for something, you want to see the service delivered,” she said.
Deputy Mayor Amber Morley, a member of Toronto’s police services board, was blunt when asked if she expects police to not ask for a budget increase in 2025 unless response times have gone down.
“That’s absolutely right,” she replied.
Coun. Brad Bradford pushed council to adopt the full increase, saying the police need to keep up on staffing levels to bring response times down. City council will expect results, he said.
“We want to see those response times go down,” he said. “And the police are very committed to that as well. As I’ve mentioned, though, I mean, this is not a panacea … So we’re actually doing the bare minimum just to replace the bodies that we have right now.”
Police campaign ‘unprecedented’: former councillor
Former Toronto mayor and coordinator of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition, John Sewell, slammed Demkiw for waging the communications campaign for additional funding. It was an improper use of taxpayer-funded resources and designed to stoke public fear, he said.
“It’s clear the Toronto police, and various other people, put enormous pressure on councillors to get that $12 million, as though this was absolutely critical to policing in Toronto,” he said. “So, it’s the normal thing that police do in Toronto, which is, they try and intimidate people who want to make change in Toronto police.”
The police service’s campaign was “unprecedented” and “inappropriate,” said former city councillor Joe Mihevc, who served on council for decades.
“With great respect to the police chief, I don’t think it is appropriate for the police chief to be engaging in debates over how budgets are formed,” Mihevc said. “You do not see that at the national level with the RCMP or the provincial level with the OPP.”
Earlier this week, Demkiw rejected questions from reporters about whether the police messaging was appropriate. He denied it was a campaign or that it was a misuse of taxpayer resources.
“I’m going to take some umbrage with that question,” he said. “Because the channels that I use to communicate are actually free social media channels that we use as a regular course of engagement.”
Demkiw also said there was nothing wrong with communicating his concerns about the budget publicly.
“I provided factual information to the residents so they could understand the implications of the situation we were facing as a city,” he said. “And I wanted to make sure decision-makers had the facts and understood the implications of the circumstances that we’re facing now.”
Where does it all go from here?
Chief Demkiw said this week that the service and police board plan to provide regular updates on their work to boost staffing and bring down response times.
“Getting this money gives us the opportunity to continue to hire and to continue to focus on reconstituting our frontline service delivery towards a better response time, (which) is certainly one of the key metrics we’re looking at,” he said.
Mihevc said the battle during this budget process now squarely puts the pressure on Demkiw and the police service to deliver lower response times. Council will want results before handing over further increases to the police service, he said.
“Because it was so heated and so direct, (council) will hold the police chief’s feet to the fire,” he said.
“This will be a point to remember when the police come back for their budget ask next year. So, at the end of the day, the 2025 budget process has already started.”
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