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Police Chief Mark Saunders is the subject of a so-called ‘no confidence vote’ by the Toronto Police Association, which says it has lost faith in his ability to address its issues.Chris Young

In an unprecedented show of resistance, partners and children of Toronto police officers are planning to spend Family Day outside the service's headquarters, protesting staffing levels they say are putting their loved ones in danger.

Jelena Leung, who helped organize the rally, has been frustrated by Toronto Police Service Chief Mark Saunders's recent comments that his service members are his top priority.

"He keeps saying that, but his actions 100 per cent tell you differently," she said. "They do not feel supported. They do not feel safe. These guys are burning out. [Chief Saunders] would know that if they were a priority."

Ms. Leung's husband has been a Toronto police officer for more than 15 years. When they married eight years ago, she says his career was a source of pride – but that today it has become an increasing strain on their family and that officers are reluctant even to take sick days out of fear of leaving their colleagues short-staffed.

"My hope, in gathering the families together, is to make [Chief Saunders] realize how large of a problem this is," she said. "I'm not disputing that he's working hard for his people. But who is he listening to today? And why isn't he listening to the people who are at the front lines, sacrificing everything so that they can serve?"

On Thursday, the Toronto Police Association launched a "no confidence vote" against Chief Saunders, noting in an internal memo that it has lost faith in his ability to address its issues.

"We believe the Chief's lack of leadership continues to jeopardize member and public safety. The Chief's inaction in resolving these issues has brought morale to an all-time low," the memo read. The TPA vote ends on Feb. 21.

"I have complete confidence in Chief Mark Saunders," said Toronto Mayor John Tory. "Toronto is the safest city in North America thanks to the hard work of the members of the Toronto Police Service. I remain committed to the plan to modernize the Toronto Police Service and know the Chief is dedicated to addressing the concerns which always arise when significant change takes place."

The rally and the vote are the latest sign of fragmentation between the police service and its officers' union over a modernization plan that continues to hit stumbling blocks one year into its roll-out.

"The Chief has, is and will always continue to listen to everyone – members and the public, Sandra Buckler, strategic communications adviser for TPS on the modernization plan, said on Thursday. "All of the modernization changes are designed to keep the front line, the members and the public safe – that is why the moratorium was lifted and we started hiring again."

"Change doesn't happen overnight. It takes a ton of hard work by a lot of people to change an organization – particularly one [the size of] the Toronto Police Service," Ms. Buckler said on Wednesday.

"Patience is required, collaboration is required and communication … is really, really important. Change is complicated – if it was easy, it would be done already."

Billed as a mutual undertaking to rein in a $1-billion budget and overhaul policing culture, the ambitious modernization plan includes recommendations to divert low-priority calls from front-line officers. The goal is to put the focus back on community engagement and "core policing."

It also aims to update the TPS scheduling system, end a long-standing rule that requires two officers per cruiser and decrease paid duty, a program that allows companies and individuals to hire off-duty officers for various events.

Some of that work is under way. For example, a recommendation to distribute cellphones to all front-line staff is now being piloted in 51 Division. But according to the service's own progress scorecard, timelines for more than half the plan's 32 recommendations – including some of the off-loading of duties – say they are "at risk" or "off track."

Toronto Police Association president Mike McCormack said his issue is not with change, but with the implementation. He argues that the service put the cart before the horse when it enforced a hiring freeze two years back – leaving it with fewer officers for what is still the same amount of work.

The current number of uniformed people on the force is slightly more than 5,000, compared with 5,635 in 2012. By next year, the goal is to have slightly fewer than 4,800 officers.

Part of the challenge was higher-than-expected attrition in 2017. Recognizing that, TPS issued a joint statement last August along with the police services board and the association, announcing that it would end the freeze to bring in 80 officers to make up for the loss. The statement assured that the plan was on track and that the three bodies remained "aligned" in their mission.

On Wednesday, Ms. Buckler clarified that the hiring freeze is over. The TPS will hire as needed, she stressed – noting plans to recruit another 40 officers this year.

"The service listened to the membership," she said (attributing part of the high attrition to "aggressive" recruitment campaigns by other police services).

Mr. McCormack says TPS's hiring is not keeping pace with attrition. This year, he said, it expects to lose another 140 people.

The association has taken out newspaper ads and billboards, blaming the mayor, Chief and board chair – pictured with splattered blood in the background – for minutes-long wait times that some 911 callers have experienced in recent months. Ms. Buckler said additional dispatchers have also been hired, clarifying they were never part of the hiring freeze.

The two have conflicting views of how the plan is progressing. The service has said that its officers were carefully consulted in the shaping of the plan and that there is regular dialogue between the service and the association.

"There are a great dedicated number of people working on all of the recommendations and we have tremendous support from command all the way through the service," Ms. Buckler said.

Mr. McCormack says they're not being listened to. "And instead, what we're experiencing is nothing but conflict," he said.

In the quarterly update to the police services board in December, Chief Saunders said he feels "positive about our progress thus far and energized by the engagement and support of Command."

The next quarterly update will go to the board in March.

With a file from Jeff Gray

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