Why councillors want to change rules governing paid-duty officers

Watch video above: Councillors cracking down on paid-duty officers. Jackson Proskow reports. 

TORONTO – Some city councillors are hoping to do away with paid-duty officers – the controversial practice that allows Toronto Police to work security at festivals for a wage that at least one councillor calls “astronomical.”

Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam was told she would need to have 250 officers, at a cost of approximately $900,000, to secure large and small intersections along Bloor Street for her proposed Open Streets festival, if it were to align with standards.

The festival, still in planning stages, would close off roughly 11 kilometres of Bloor Street in the summer to allow people to freely roam the area. Those 250 officers would be working security as well as keeping cars off the route.

“It made no sense. We’re not talking about the G8 summit, there are no international dignitaries, this is not a politically charged event,” she said. “There’s no controversy whatsoever about creating a family-friendly recreational program. So we’re really perplexed but we want to work with the police.”

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Paid-duty officers are frequently seen throughout Toronto standing near construction sites. In 2013, there were 51,000 requests for paid-duty officers and 3,047 officers took advantage of the request. In total, $26.1 million was paid out – approximately $8,532 per officer.

But the $26 million is not completely paid through city coffers. If it’s a city project, the city pays. And if a private contractor is doing work for the city, the paid-duty officer is paid by the company but the bill is sent to the city.

Paid-duty officers working at a private or community event are paid by the community organizers.

In 2009, nearly 40 per cent of paid duty bills were paid by the taxpayer.

Mike McCormack, president of the Toronto Police Association, suggested in a phone interview Friday that uniformed police officers were the only ones with the appropriate training to work on paid-duty assignments.

“Directing traffic has to be done by a uniformed police officer,” he said. “It’s done that way because the uniformed police officer has the appropriate training, the appropriate accountability and the authority to direct traffic with all the powers of a police officer. And it also mitigates risk and liability and insurance purposes for the city and company that are directing traffic.”

Wong-Tam suggested the practice is quickly becoming the largest cost for festival organizers in the city.

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“If all the money goes straight to the police and police paid duty wages, then there’s less and less value in terms of content-driven events,” she said. “We will start to see corporate sponsorships push back and say, you know, we’re not going to pay for policing, because it doesn’t result in good value for them.”

Councillors are looking at options to try and minimize the cost of security by training volunteers or hiring security officers. It seems a simple fix but provincial regulations currently forbid anything but trained police officers.

Most paid duty officers are requested in order to direct traffic and provincial legislation stipulates only police officers can direct traffic.

“I would hope that if the police officer is there that they are contributing to the public safety, but it’s not necessary for a uniformed police officer to do that job,” Councillor Josh Matlow said. “I’d far rather them to go out and do the work that they are the best at in the world than standing next to a work site or a community event.”

Matlow said Friday he is hoping to bring forward a motion at the city’s next audit committee that would request changes to the provincial legislation allowing people other than police officers to be used.

– With files from Jackson Proskow

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