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In January, 2017, a group studying how to modernize Toronto's police force released its final report. The Transformational Task Force called for sweeping changes to the way police do their jobs. "The limits of the existing model of policing have been reached," it said. "The answer to outdated service-delivery cannot simply be more public funding. To contain costs and ensure value for money, fundamental change is needed."

A year later, the campaign for change is in serious trouble. Rank-and-file cops, backed by their powerful union, are complaining that staffing shortages are putting them, and the city they serve, in danger. A series of recent reports by CBC News quoted anonymous officers who said the force is sometimes too stretched to respond to urgent calls. Cops are feeling frustrated and burned out, they said. One claimed that if something like the 2012 mass shooting at Danzig Street were to happen now, the force could not cope.

The police board has already had to backtrack on its pledge to enforce a three-year hiring freeze. It agreed to hire 80 new officers to fill a shortfall.

Even the lowest hanging fruit on the transformation tree has proved hard to pluck. A plan to phase out the practice of sending police to fill in for absent crossing guards has been delayed because the city could not figure out how to replace them.

All of this is entirely predictable. Transforming big, bureaucratic organizations is always tough. When the organizations are municipal agencies, the task is especially hard. Andy Byford, the dynamic, just-departed head of the Toronto Transit Commission, struggled to change the hidebound TTC despite his leadership skills. The leaders of Toronto's public housing agency have a job on their hands reorganizing and shaking up that organization, as recommended in a 2016 report.

The police force is the toughest nut of all. Hierarchical, paramilitary, resistant to outside interference, it is set in its ways like a fence post is set in concrete. Many of its practices are governed by contract with the police union. Thinking in a flexible, entrepreneurial way does not come naturally to its uniformed leaders.

"When you try to modernize or transform an organization, there's always going to be a pushback and there's going to be some resistance to change because we're all human beings and change is not something people necessarily welcome," the mayor, John Tory, says. All the same, he says he is determined to push ahead. "The transformation is something that is necessary, it is something that I support, it is something that we are learning about each day that we actually do it."

He should stick to his guns. With the task-force report as a (admittedly vague) blueprint, Toronto has a rare chance to bring about real change in the police service. The mayor, the police board and, most important, the police chief, Mark Saunders, are all solidly on board.

The head of the police union, Mike McCormack, is more reasonable than some of his predecessors. He insists he isn't against modernization – just ill-considered cost-cutting that starves the force. The way it is being implemented is "absolutely reprehensible," he says.

Change is vital for two reasons. First, to contain costs. Police forces across the country have been struggling with remorselessly rising expenses. The police budget, now around $1-billion, gobbles up resources that could go to other city needs.

Second, to get better policing. Advocates of reform want a force that focuses on fighting crime and building ties to communities instead of squandering its resources on answering minor calls and dealing with smaller incidents. It makes no sense to send a highly trained, highly paid cop with a gun on his belt to hold a stop sign and help schoolchildren cross the street. Last year, Chief Saunders told CBC, front-line officers spent about 10,000 hours on crossing-guard duty. They spent another 47,000 hours or so dealing with low-urgency incidents that involved the mentally ill.

Civilian staff, or less costly special constables, should be doing a lot of the routine work that consumes so much of police time, such as coping with low-level traffic offences or taking a report when someone's backyard barbecue gets stolen.

The mayor and the chief can't let themselves be knocked off course by overheated rhetoric about how rapid change at the force is putting people at risk (it isn't). The biggest thing that Toronto has to worry about is not that reform will go too far or too fast, but that it will be too modest and too slow.