Strong arm of the law reaches into two-tier system

Toronto is such a safe city every pothole merits police protection. There is no maintenance so trivial nor event so anodyne it does not require at least one uniformed police constable to stand around uselessly, looking bored. Next thing you know, "paid-duty" police will be serving ice cream to tourists. It's a great advertisement for the city.

But at $62.50 an hour, minimum, it's an expensive one - and growing more so all the time. Five years ago, various groups, companies and city departments paid off-duty police officers $12-million to provide mandated security in circumstances deemed unworthy of the attention of on-duty police officers. This year they will be paying more than double that.

People complain about rent-a-cops patrolling Chinatown, but the actual market is controlled by real cops performing comparatively minor duties. Provincial statutes and city bylaws protect their monopoly, individual unit commanders decide who must pay them and when, and the police union decides unilaterally how much they charge. "Paid duty" is a tidy little business.

An insensitive, anti-union, free-market observer might even call it a racket, in view of the fact there are so many qualified companies and individuals willing to guard potholes at a fraction of the price the Toronto Police Association charges for the service.

And if the duties are more than trivial, in which case they legitimately require the attendance of uniformed police officers, what's with the invoices?

A liberal can only rankle at the emergence of a two-tier policing system, in which some services are funded from the tax base and others outsourced, with no clear and consistent distinction between the two.

Whatever else it may be, paid duty remains mysterious. A report on the subject from Police Chief Bill Blair, requested by his board and forwarded on to city hall's executive committee for yesterday's meeting, did little to clear it up - other than to demonstrate that "the criteria used to determine whether on-duty or paid-duty personnel will be utilized at specific events" are shockingly arbitrary and contingent.

"Nobody could tell us very clearly how it began," said police board chair Alok Mukherjee, recalling the discussion Chief Blair's opaque report inspired. "The service says it is because of bylaws that require police supervision. The city says the police required us to write those bylaws."

In 2007, according to the chief's report, city departments and agencies spent $1.3-million for freelance policing of public works. Private companies pay the largest share, but non-profit community groups do not escape.

If a local unit commander decides your bake sale needs security, you have no choice but to pay. He or she will decide how much security you need, and the union will dictate the cost.

One of the biggest mysteries is how the union earned the right to set the rates, which range to $80 an hour for a staff sergeant and require a minimum three-hour shift in all cases. The police board asked the chief to return with a better explanation of that and other issues.

The chief is no stranger to the matter, having reformed the paid-duty system while serving as a staff superintendent. The problem at the time was that certain officers, especially those stationed downtown, were dominating an essentially unregulated business.

He made it fair for police, instituting a paid-duty office to distribute the opportunities more equitably, but nobody has paid much attention to the needs of the "clients," as the police describe their often-unwilling benefactors.

Their cause is hopeless, no matter how many more reports come out.