Originally published on Torontoist on May 30, 2011.
Inspector Charles Greenwood on motorcycle, circa 1932. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1009.
Imagine a Toronto City Council that almost turns down a request for additional funding from the Toronto Police Service and its union during a time of financial restraint. While a pay raise for officers, in our current political climate, doesn’t seem to constitute excessive spending, back in the mid-1930s funding requests for upgraded equipment were seen by some councillors as worthy of a ticket on the gravy train. In that historic instance, it may seem strange that implementing a police request to install a radio dispatch system to improve the force’s reaction to calls was regarded as a waste of taxpayer money.
According to a report prepared by the Board of Police Commissioners in 1935, the city’s police force was ill-equipped to handle rising levels of petty crime and armed robbery. Understaffing stretched the distance each street duty officer covered. Underfunding threatened to lay off 21 new recruits during the summer. The report asked city council for approximately $36,000 to fix 28 aging motorcycles, cover staffing costs, and provide radio-equipped cars so that officers could react faster to incidents.
When the proposal was submitted to city council, it was rejected by penny-pinching councillors who felt the new technology was a waste of money and, like other Torontonians suffering the effects of the Great Depression, the police should make do with what they had or less. Controller Samuel McBride felt that “one man on the street, to my mind, is better than five men in a car,” while Alderman Fred Conboy
noted that, despite the benefits of radio dispatching for efficacy, “I don’t think the police are going to the dogs just because there are a couple of bands of robbers running around.”
To the naysayers, Mayor James Simpson replied that “there are some who would have our Toronto police on foot chasing after high-powered cars employed by criminals. If it were not so tragic it would be laughable to realize that some people think Toronto is still a mud village.” He pointed to a report prepared for the police department that showed savings of $330,000 over 10 years by using a radio dispatch system instead of hiring 21 additional full-time officers. Alderman Robert Leslie had heard positive feedback regarding radio dispatching from friends on the Detroit police force and declared, “If this city is so financially embarrassed that it cannot find the money for this essential factor, then things are in a pretty bad way.”
Cowan Avenue Police Station, September 8, 1932. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 1, Item 1164.
On June 27, 1935, as city council prepared for another vote, the Globe published an editorial supporting police radio and criticizing small-mindedness within City Hall:
The question of police radio cars is not a petty issue of local politics, but a matter of vital concern, and the sooner the people’s representatives in the Board of Control and council approach it from a proper perspective, the sooner will those people feel that the Controllers and Aldermen are more concerned with the safety and protection of their constituents than with their own group allegiances and piffling prejudices.
One of Simpson’s final pleas to opponents echoes recent criticisms of the Ford administration’s voting habits. “Toronto is in a class by itself because of its lack of airport facilities and radio-equipped cruisers,” the mayor noted. “Once Toronto was in the vanguard of advance but now in some very important features of civic administration she is sadly lagging behind.” Police Chief Constable Dennis Draper addressed council with his rationale for funding, which included the high recovery rate of stolen vehicles in Montreal after that city installed a radio dispatch system. Draper’s appearance upset Alderman J.R. Beamish, who felt the chief should shut up and carry on as best as possible. “The head of any department should never get so high that he thinks he can tell the city what to do,” said Beamish.
Leslie submitted three separate motions in favour of police demands. By an 8–7 vote, council refused to consider the motions and deferred them to a special meeting Simpson promised to call. This meeting would deal with police funding and another issue that resonates today: the building of a tunnel link to the new airport at Hanlan’s Point. Deadlock over the issue between city council as a whole (which increasingly supported funding police radio) and the Board of Control (where the majority opposed) threatened to continue for some time.
After a council-wide vote on July 9, 1935 which went 14–5 in favour of police radio, Controller Ralph Day signalled he would switch his vote to favour the proposal so that the Board of Control didn’t obstruct the majority vote. “I do not wish this proposed vote to be construed as a change of heart, but simply as a means of keeping up the friendly feeling that should exist between city council and the Board of Control,” Day stated. A few die-hard opponents, like McBride, remained. “We’re being horn-swoggled by the police department,” he stated. “Radio patrols are a luxury for the police and a lodestone for the people.” Anyone who needed an officer in a hurry would disagree with McBride.
Additional material from the June 15, 1935, and June 27, 1935 editions of the Globe; and the June 25, 1935, June 26, 1935, June 27, 1935, June 28, 1935, and July 9, 1935 editions of the Toronto Star.