The Toronto Police Association has taken its feud with the city to new heights, after a billboard went up on Monday slamming staffing cuts to the police force.
"[Things are] very tense right now," Toronto Police Association president Mike McCormack acknowledged on Monday of the union's relationship with the Toronto Police Service and board – and they are about to get even more so. The billboard near a major expressway in the city's west end is a blown-up version of a full-page newspaper ad the association put out last week, criticizing the minutes-long wait times that some callers have experienced when dialling 911.
The city has attributed this, in part, to misuse of the line in non-emergency situations, but Mr. McCormack insists it's the result of a staffing problem.
"These guys are putting your safety on hold," the billboard says, showing a laughing Mayor John Tory, police Chief Mark Saunders and Toronto Police Services Board chair Andy Pringle with what looks like spattered blood in the shape of "911" in the background.
The Toronto Police Service did not respond to calls for comment.
In an e-mail on Monday, the mayor's spokesman Don Peat said that Mr. Tory was made aware of issues with 911 last year.
"Since then, Chief Mark Saunders has assigned Deputy Chief Shawna Coxon to address those issues. Around 40 new communication operators have been hired in the last few months to take emergency calls," he said. "As Mayor Tory said last week when these ads were first launched, we are not, for one minute, compromising the safety of the people of Toronto or the ability of the police service to provide for that safety."
Mr. McCormack's overarching concern is with Toronto Police's "The Way Forward transformation plan"– one that, in an effort to trim back a billion-dollar budget, has made sweeping recommendations that include a three-year hiring freeze.
On Monday, Mr. McCormack said he has no problem with the intent to modernize the service. His concern, he said, is that the cuts have been rolled out "recklessly" and that higher than expected attrition rates have left the service understaffed.
While the service said last summer that it would be hiring an additional 80 officers for that very reason, Mr. McCormack says that is not enough. For example, he says, more than 150 officers have given their notice (for a number of reasons, including retirements and resignations) since Jan. 1.
"We're not looking for wages, we're not looking to get back to the [number of] officers we [once] had. … All we're saying is 'Slow down and do this thing properly.' Make sure we're staffed properly," he said.
"We're in the middle of winter. I can't imagine what it's going to be like in spring and summer when officers start taking holidays and what not."
On behalf of the mayor on Monday, Mr. Peat said that "ads and billboards will not advance the process of modernization; only constructive discussion will do so."
The mayor himself has previously criticized the ad campaign as "most unfortunate."
"It is a throwback to the old days of the way police union bosses acted. And I just don't really want any part of it," Mr. Tory said in a radio interview last week. "But I don't control that, I just have my job to do. And I'll continue to do it the way that I do, which is hopefully responsible and respectful."
But Mr. McCormack – who will be up for re-election later this year – has no plans to back down.
"We're going to keep going until we get a resolution that protects the public and our membership," he said.
He would not say how much the ads or billboard cost.
"Not only do I think it's justified, my membership thinks it's justified," he said.
On Sunday, the Toronto Paramedic Union waded into the heated debate on social media: "Paramedics report yet another violent night. Can't help but wonder if there is a correlation between police cuts and Paramedic safety. Keep up the fight @TPAca," the union (@416TPSUnit) tweeted.
The paramedic union did not respond to calls for comment Monday. Kim McKinnon, a spokesperson for Toronto Paramedic Services, said she is not aware of any concerns or incidents that would have sparked the tweet, but said health and safety are a top priority.