Chief Blair would rather cut stations than frontline officers

Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair would rather consolidate police stations than cut frontline officers as he tries to meet a request to freeze the force's budget for the coming year.

Toronto's top cop praises Canada's tough gun laws in wide-ranging interview

Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair said Canada's stricter gun laws are a reason the city's homicide rate is 10 times lower than Chicago. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair would rather consolidate police stations than cut frontline officers as he tries to meet a request to freeze the force's budget for the coming year.

Blair made the comments on CBC Radio's Metro Morning Tuesday, speaking with host Matt Galloway about the challenges of keeping Canada's largest city safe in a time of tightened police budgets and new concerns over gun violence.

Blair spent the first part of the interview talking about the force's 2013 budget, which was was frozen by the Toronto Police Services Board. Blair was critical of that decision but said the force has no choice but to do more with less.

"We’ll have the resources to do our job, there are some challenges in this budget," he said. "We’re now going into our third year of a hiring freeze. As a result, we have fewer officers available to do certain jobs." 

He said the hiring freeze hinders his ability to replace retiring officers, which he said number about 180 each year.

"If you don’t replace them, you have 180 fewer. That’s just simple math. 2012 was another year of significant crime declines," he said. 

Although Blair said the hiring freeze won't make the city unsafe, he pointed to hiring increases made after the so-called summer of the gun in 2005, which he said put 400 more officers on the street.

"It has made a difference," he said. "We’ve seen significant reductions in the violence from 2005. If you’re going to reduce the number of officers, our ability to do some of those things will be reduced."

He also said the hiring freeze will somewhat hinder efforts to increase diversity on the force.

"Our ability to continue to make progress along that line is slowed," he said. "When you’re not hiring, you can’t bring in an increasingly diverse workforce."

The Toronto police budget will have to stay at $927 million for the year, and the plan includes $6.7 million in cuts that are not yet allocated, which Chief Bill Blair will have to find.

Possible merger of 54, 55 Division

Galloway also put a question to Blair that came from a Metro Morning listener, who asked about a proposed plan to merge two of the city's division offices, specifically 54 and 55 in the east end.

54 Division serves an area just north of Danforth Avenue and east of the Don River stretching to Victoria Park Avenue, while 55 Division serves an area just to the south.

Blair admits he's looking at the merger, saying the cost of administering each of the city's 17 divisions could be better spent on officers.

Last summer's Danzig Street shooting left two dead and sent 23 people to hospital. Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair said 70 per cent of guns used in Toronto's criminal shootings originate in the United States. (CBC)

"I’m doing everything possible to keep as many of my officers in the community delivering service," he said. "If we can consolidate and operate with 16 divisions instead of 17, there are some real savings that can be achieved.

"If I’m faced with the challenge of having fewer officers out in the community, I’d much rather take them out of the administrative functions then out of the front line.

"A police station in your community does have some value, I’m not discounting that. But at the same time we have to find the most efficient and most economical way to provide police services in this city. The city is facing real financial challenges and we have an obligation to do our part."

Stopping the flow of U.S. guns

Galloway also asked Blair about how Toronto can guard itself against gun violence. In August a gang shootout at a block party on Danzig Street in Toronto left two dead and 23 wounded.

Blair said stopping the flow of guns into Canada from the United States is key because 70 per cent of guns used in Toronto shootings originate south of the border.

"We live next door to the largest handgun arsenal in the world," said Blair. "They are obtained by people intent on smuggling them into Canada."

'We live next door to the largest handgun arsenal in the world'—Bill Blair, Toronto police chief

Blair supports Canada's tougher gun laws, which he said have helped keep Toronto's homicide rate run 10 times lower that Chicago's, a city roughly the same size.

"I’m very proud of the history and the culture of gun control in this country," he said. "The differences between the safety of our cities and the safety of U.S. cities is stark and I think the reasons are rather obvious: There are a great deal more guns in their communities.

"I think it’s something that we should be protective of, something that we should be proud of, and something that we should ensure is maintained in this country. We have safe cities and we don’t want to regress to where others have found themselves."

He said Toronto police work closely with U.S. law enforcement agencies to curtail the cross-border gun trade.

"It’s a very effective relationship," he said. "There’s lot of intelligent sharing that goes back and forth. A lot of good investigations have resulted."

Blair also said that law enforcement and education go hand-in-hand when it comes to dealing with gun violence.

"You can’t just deal with the supply of guns, you also have to deal with the demand for guns," he said. "We have to go into our communities and work with those young people who would make that choice to use a gun to commit a criminal office and we have to help them make better choices."