The swirl around Toronto Police “paid duty” officers directing traffic in a variety of scenarios continued this week after a city staff report stated – among several recommendations, that: “…police powers should not be a prerequisite for directing traffic, and that other persons with appropriate training could fulfill the function safely and in a more cost-effective manner."

This dovetails with past suggestions raised that Ontario police officers are too highly paid and trained to do tasks like directing traffic, and that either lower paid “special constables” or trained civilians could do such work.

Toronto Police Association Mike McCormack immediately expressed concern on behalf of his membership, saying that the recommendations are a “smokescreen to get at on-duty policing and create two-tier policing.”

For the most part, “paid duty” policing is not paid for by the taxpayer. The officers are hired by a private construction or film company to direct traffic, or a licensed establishment for armed security purposes at special events, and more. They do this off-duty, so are not removed from other policing duties to do it. Although the paid duty program is administrated by Toronto Police personnel, private companies themselves pay the officers for their time, as well as an additional fee to cover some administration costs. Although the money made for paid duty work over the course of the years shows on the TPS officers’ salaries on the so-called “Sunshine List”, those funds do not come out of the TPS budget.

My understanding is that at times, although much more infrequent, taxpayer dollars do fund paid duty officers – in cases where the municipality itself is having an event that the policing requirements exceed the capability of on duty TPS personnel in a given situation. In addition, in some instances, a construction company that is doing road or sidewalk work within the municipality on contract, would factor paid duty officer costs into their bid, therefore in essence the taxpayer is paying at least in part for the officers to direct traffic. This happens with OPP officers as well who are assisting with traffic control at highway construction sites on paid duty, when the contractor is being paid by the Ministry of Transportation.

The bottom-line is: police officers direct traffic. They always have. Sometimes it is only for several minutes at a collision scene while vehicles are being cleared away, at other times for an hour or 2 when traffic lights are out, and for many other reasons for varying times. Yes, at that time they do not necessarily need the full training they have received to be police officers. They likely won’t need to make arrests, gather evidence, use force, conduct interviews or testify in court. But then again, the next driver that happens upon the scene may be impaired or committing some criminal act that will require full police powers and training. Once done directing traffic, fully trained officers move on to the next call or focused patrol, and more. That is the generalist officer concept – trained sufficiently to do many different things, rather than having a bunch of officers who are each only trained to perform certain roles, driving around hither and yon waiting for a call within their specific area of expertise.

In the paid duty context, it is true that special constables could be trained to do this work, but the cost to the company that is hiring the officers is not going to save a ton of money. It’s not like special constables are going to do it for minimum wage. Special constables that do prisoner escorts in police services make similar salaries to constables. The initial and annual refresher training costs are hugely cheaper however. Ultimately that concept would save the company hiring the paid duty officers some money, but once again for the most part that funding does not come from the public purse string. Nonetheless, I do agree that every tax dollar counts.

The advantage to having fully trained and armed police officers conducting paid duty work, is that from a policing perspective it puts more police officers out there in the public eye. What is the crime prevention value gained from that? It is impossible to measure, but at any given time in some cities there are uniformed officers out on the sidewalks and street doing paid duty work, interacting with the public, and would respond in a heart-beat to protect the public if they saw something happen. Other than the public misunderstanding of what the officers are doing and who is paying, I don’t see that public profile as a bad thing.

There are other issues surrounding the paid duty debate that have always concerned me. Are some officers working so many paid duties that they are not fully rested and alert when performing regular police duties? Perhaps. Are those same officers always showing up for their scheduled shifts following a paid duty? I hope so. They’d better be, or they would be letting their colleagues down. Are police services getting 100% cost recovery from these private companies – i.e. fuel and other cruiser costs, administration, damaged uniforms, etc.? However, these are all local management issues to sort out.

I appreciate that the average citizen that sees an armed constable standing on a sidewalk watching workers repair a curb, may be thinking, “Why are we paying officers $100K a year to do that?”. I get that. But there are 2 sides to this story and the detractors generally don’t know or communicate the entire picture.

Chris Lewis served as Commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police from 2010 until he retired in 2014. He can be seen regularly on CTV and CP24 giving his opinion as a public safety analyst.