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Next month, another 30 new students will begin classes to join the Toronto police officer ranks.

It is the second group of recruits to be brought in during what was supposed to be three-year hiring freeze – “one of the most significant elements” of a modernization plan by the Toronto Police Service (TPS) to overhaul policing culture and rein in a $1-billion budget, former police services board chair Alok Mukherjee says.

The union fought the hiring freeze, and the service – pointing to higher than expected attrition rates – caved.

There is no debate that the existing law-enforcement model has become unaffordable. Services across the country are being directed to modernize, but their unions are standing their ground – and showing they might have become too powerful to be reined back in.

“Force is not just what comes out of the barrel of a police officer’s gun,” Mr. Mukherjee argues in his new book, Excessive Force: Toronto’s Fight to Reform City Policing.

After a decade at the helm of Toronto’s Police Services Board, stepping down in 2015, he believes that political force can be just as powerful a police weapon as the guns in their holsters.

Mr. Mukherjee’s book (written with former Toronto Star journalist Tim Harper) explores “the ways in which excessive force has been used by members of police forces in Toronto – and elsewhere in North America – to challenge and even undermine attempts to transform the model of policing we have today.”

One year into the implementation of the service’s modernization plan, the competing power dynamics – between the police board, the police service, and the officers’ union – are on full display.

At Thursday’s board meeting, staff presented a “year in review” of the plan’s implementation. The focus was on the need for better communication, both internally among the rank and file and externally within the community – particularly in light of the “anti-information campaign,” as board member and Toronto City Councillor Shelley Carroll called it, by the officers’ union, the Toronto Police Association (TPA).

It was the board’s only mention of the TPA during the modernization talks on Thursday, the elephant in the room and a larger obstacle than perhaps the board would like to admit. After months of rising tensions, the two are now seemingly locked in battle.

“I’m not a pessimist,” Mr. Mukherjee said, “but I’m under no illusions that significant change is coming any time soon.”

Last month, the TPA launched a no-confidence vote against Chief Mark Saunders’s leadership. Of the association’s roughly 7,400 uniformed and civilian members, roughly 48 per cent cast a ballot. Of those, the TPA says, 86 per cent declared a lack of faith in the chief.

But what the TPA touted as a clear reflection of malcontent, the police services board has dismissed as theatrics. It was not so much an election as a union directive, they argue –one that less than half the membership were even willing to entertain.

Chief Saunders said he took the vote “in context.”

“It’s an election year for the association,” he said. “In order to win, you have to get votes.”

The board stressed that they supported Chief Saunders – and that their modernization goals are on track.

Yet, of the 33 items on the service’s transformation to-do list, timelines for 17 tasks are listed today as being at risk or off track, according to TPS’s own progress scorecard. Those [items] the service has accomplished, Mr. Mukherjee said, have been mostly “low-hanging fruits.”

For example, the service celebrated on Thursday that they are finally “officially out of the lifeguarding business,” having successfully handed the program over to the city. Yet, they are still working out the kinks of off-loading the crossing-guard program – one that still has armed police officers filling in when crossing guards call in sick.

The hardest work is yet to come. Many of the bigger picture recommendations remain stuck in the planning phase and will need union backing to move forward.

With a goal of putting the focus back on community policing, the plan aims to change the officers’ scheduling system, their divisional boundaries, their day-to-day duties and the ways they interact with the public. Suddenly, the overtime paid-duty hours that officers have counted on to pad their salaries are being cut off. The promotions they’ve spent decades working toward are being frozen. Uniformed positions will be eliminated and replaced with lower-paying civilian gigs.

Too much of a uniformed officer’s time is eaten up by mundane administrative tasks and non-emergency calls that could be adequately handled by civilian officers or outside agencies altogether, the service argues. Police are being overburdened with non-police work.

The modernization plan recommends redirecting some of those low-priority and non-emergency tasks to civilian officers or the city.

This is also a goal of new provincial legislation passed this month that aims to update policing and police oversight more broadly across the province.

Chief Saunders says it’s an argument he’s made for “some time.”

“Why do I need a highly trained law-enforcement officer sitting on a stool for seven, eight days in a hallway for a homicide forensic examination? It makes no sense to me. That’s not what the officers signed up for, it’s not what their training is all about, and it’s not what the community expectation is,” Chief Saunders said. “There’s another resource that can do that and free up those officers.”

TPA president Mike McCormack insists he has no problem with change – but that the service put the cart before the horse in implementing a hiring freeze before some of that work was ready to be off-loaded.

“The reality is that the way that change is implemented is going to be the predetermining factor of the success of the change. That’s the key issue, and that’s where we’re in a big conflict right now,” Mr. McCormack said last month.

Last summer, the service did acknowledge staffing numbers were off, and agreed to hire 80 more officers. They stressed in February – in response to a campaign by the union that targeted Chief Saunders, Toronto Mayor John Tory, and Police Services Board chair Andy Pringle – that the freeze was over. They’ve now pledged to bring in more than 100 officers by the end of the year and said they’ll hire more as needed.

It is a cost of doing business, the service says – a necessary response to unexpectedly high attrition rates.

But, in Mr. Mukherjee’s view, this is a victory for the union – and one that shows their power “far exceeds” their defined role as a labour-relations organization.

There are two specific recommendations in the modernization plan that hinge on the collective agreement with the union: the elimination of a long-standing two-officers-per-cruiser rule and the overhauling of the shift-scheduling system.

The two-officers-per-cruiser rule is a policy that has stood in Toronto for decades; a buddy system intended to keep officers safe at night. But, given the nature of the bulk of police work today – “using risk and demand analysis” – the service has determined this is unnecessary. In some cases, or units, maybe – but it should not be the requirement across the board.

Under the current “compressed work week’” scheduling model, the city is paying for 28 hours of police work (two ten-hour and one eight-hour shifts) a day, and they have the same number of officers out on a Friday evening that they do on a Sunday morning. This lack of flexibility makes no sense, Chief Saunders says.

“I don’t need to do huge, massive research to know that, at 6 o’clock on a Sunday morning, I need [fewer] officers than on a Friday night at midnight … there are different times when we need more boots on the ground,” he said. “I have those boots on the ground – but they’re not properly deployed.”

While the association has expressed willingness to talk on the scheduling front, Chief Saunders said “there have been conversations, but there hasn’t been movement.”

He argues that the staffing crisis being lamented by the association is a product of their own stubbornness. The association, on the other hand, has blamed the service for stalled talks.

With contract negotiations on the horizon next year, scheduling and cruiser deployment are both likely to be used as bargaining chips. And, with 2019 long predicted to be the year that first-class constables’ salaries surpass $100,000 in Toronto, the issue has never been more pressing.

“How the board handles that will be a test of how strong a role it’s prepared to play,” Mr. Mukherjee said.

Chief Saunders stressed that modernization “will not be a straight line.”

“I’ve never ever said it’s going to be a straight line. There are going to be ups and downs and we’ve made shifts and adjustments,” he said. “And a lot of those … have been as a result of listening to members, listening to the association. And I look forward to moving forward.”

As one of the city’s biggest power brokers, Mr. McCormack has made it clear that he can – and will – make this difficult. It’s his job to.

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