Beginning Wednesday, senior people from federal, provincial and municipal governments, as well as police chiefs, members of civilian oversight bodies and leading academics are convening in Ottawa to address the exploding cost of policing in Canada.

On the face of it, this two-day summit will attempt to find ways to rein in police budgets, which have doubled over the last 15 years, eating away at what is available for other government services.

But to be considered a success, the summit will probably have to go beyond budget trimming if it is to mark a new beginning for policing in this country.

For that to happen, the laws and funding structures for policing must be reformed to strengthen the links between police and other social services, as well as the businesses and private security agencies that make a contribution to public safety.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews suggested as much when he announced that this summit is "an opportunity to assess and implement new ways of ensuring community safety; to learn from other jurisdictions — both inside and outside of Canada — and look for areas for improvement in our own approach."

No more business as usual

In the context of an uncertain global economy, where governments almost everywhere are running huge deficits — and in some cases laying off police and other essential services to try to make ends meet — we may have reached the breaking point on what we can spend on policing.

As more and more Canadian municipalities and provincial governments are saying, business as usual simply cannot continue.

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Toronto police have been told to flatline their 2013 budget, which Chief Bill Blair warns will lead to fewer officers on the streets, a common dilemma facing municipalities across the country. (Reuters)

Over the past year, Canadians have been peppered with stories of the rising cost of policing, with these issues coming to a head in different ways.

In Toronto, the police services board has been locked in a months-long clash with its Toronto police to try to trim spending by 10 per cent.

The squabble has ended, sort of, with the board having rejected Chief Bill Blair's submission of a budget that was initially $21 million (2.1 per cent) over last year's amount, in favour one that simply held the line and might result in fewer officers next year.

This will leave Toronto city councillors with some hard choices in the days ahead as they struggle to approve a new budget and fund all municipal services without straying further into the red.

Meanwhile, mere months after signing long-term policing contracts with the RCMP, municipalities in British Columbia are now complaining that these arrangements are too costly and that the RCMP services being delivered are too disconnected from local priorities.

Smaller Ontario municipalities are in a similar squeeze after seeing their local police forces amalgamated into the Ontario Provincial Police.

A coalition of northern Ontario mayors has now united to put pressure on the province to pay more of what it sees as the excessive costs of OPP services.

What to do?

While it is true, in a very simple sense, that the economy can drive police reform — running out of money almost always promotes the search for efficiencies — the real challenges for the future of policing are stemming more from even deeper structural shifts.

All the changes in what we produce, buy, sell, move and consume create new security challenges, which require new policing solutions.

Internet crime, illegal human migration and smuggling, transnational drug and financial fraud networks, and diffuse terrorism, not to mention the normal strains of maintaining order in an increasingly diverse society has constantly heaped new functions on police forces in recent decades.

Leaving aside whether Canada's police have the education and training for all of these tasks, no single organization can hope to stretch and adapt continually to meet all the new security and public safety demands as they emerge indefinitely.

It is probably only going to be through building a new public safety model — and learning how to measure effectively what police do — that we will succeed in dealing with the efficiency problem.

Slashed budgets

Getting a handle on the police force of tomorrow won't be an easy task. Our current laws and ways of funding police are not really set up for coordination.

In fact, Canada's fiscal crisis surrounding policing is just the surface of a deeper global one – where the entire way of looking at public safety is out of date.

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Police or parks? Some hard hit U.S. cities, like Stanton, Calif., have had to suffer both. It closed its lone police station as well as a number of parks. (Associated Press)

In the U.S., the economic crisis has resulted in massive budget cuts where nearly half of American police forces have seen their finances slashed by 20 to 40 per cent in the last four years.

The laying off of police officers, unpaid furloughs and the disorganization of community policing programs has been the unfortunate result.

In Britain, the government has cut police budgets by 20 per cent across the nation, part of a broad austerity program — and has been experimenting with the most extensive privatization of police services since the 1700s.

The entire architecture for holding both public and private security agencies accountable has been revamped as a result. The jury remains out as to whether this will work.

But the good news is that the British government is keeping track of successes and failures through proper evaluation, in order to learn from experience and adjust its experiments as it goes forward.

Unless Canada gets out in front of the innovation curve, we can probably expect, given a context of limited economic growth, to see a scenario similar to that of the U.S. — in particular, disorganized cutting where the "low hanging fruit" is trimmed from existing policing structures.

In that case, trimming unevenly across the country could well result in an ineffective and poorly coordinated system for public safety.

Canadians will know if this week's summit was a success if specific, innovative approaches to community safety — best cases from across Canada and overseas — are identified and rolled out on a trial basis.

If we keep track of what works best, and use this evidence to reform Canadian policing from the foundation up, then the current economic crisis will not have been wasted.