Toronto Star

The tough road ahead


There is little new in the “action plan” to be debated by the Toronto Police Board on Thursday. Most of its 34 recommenda­tions have appeared in one form or another in a string of reports commission­ed over the seven years since the board promised to modernize the force and get its ballooning budget under control.

That most of the plan’s proposed new directions are old ideas is not a demerit, but an indication of just how difficult transforma­tion can be. In any organizati­on, and particular­ly for often-sclerotic police forces, reform is much easier conceived than implemente­d. The board must not only approve the welcome and overdue measures proposed, but also ensure that it has a plan to overcome the predictabl­e obstacles.

The direction recommende­d by the Transforma­tional Task Force, led by board chair Andy Pringle and Chief Mark Saunders, is the right one: more efficient, less adversaria­l, more embedded in and co-operative with the communitie­s served. The most significan­t recommenda­tions include:

A three-year freeze on promotions and new hires with a goal of reducing the force through attrition. With almost 90 per cent of the force’s $1-billion budget going to wages and benefits, there’s little alternativ­e to shrinking the ranks.

An end to the controvers­ial TAVIS program, saturating troubled areas of the city with specialize­d rapid-response units. Instead of building relationsh­ips, this heavy-handed approach often increases mistrust of police.

Assigning officers to neighbourh­oods for a minimum of three years, allowing time to build relationsh­ips and establish trust.

Having highly paid uniformed staff concentrat­e on serious police work instead of responding to various bylaw infraction­s and other minor matters that could be better handled by others.

Taken together, the proposals would go a long way toward not just saving money, but also building a more effective police service.

Experts and police brass alike have long known this is the right path. The question now is whether the leadership has the will and a plan to navigate the inevitable internal blowback and assuage understand­able public skepticism.

Predictabl­y, the police union has already griped about the plan. Toronto Police Associatio­n president Mike McCormack has claimed, against all evidence, that cuts would necessaril­y undermine public safety. He has even threatened that “job action” may be taken by officers “stressed by the workload.”

These concerns, while exaggerate­d, cannot be ignored. Several of the proposals would require a change to the collective agreement. One way or another, police leadership will have to find a way to get the rank and file on board. Unfortunat­ely, the task force process seems largely to have excluded the police associatio­n and police brass have had little to say about how, exactly, they intend to get the union to co-operate.

This apparent divide between the rank and file and their leadership hints at the biggest obstacle to success: a police culture that’s famously resistant to change. While the task force has acknowledg­ed that a culture shift is “the essential underpinni­ng” of all the recommenda­tions, its plan for achieving this is sketchy.

The issues at stake — public trust, public safety, fiscal responsibi­lity — are too important for this effort to be added to the list of failed reforms. Critics are right that an important starting point will be an independen­t assessment of the cultural hurdles that will have to be overcome. Taking stock of and being open about the challenges is hard. It seems the police want to do the right thing. Now they must finally do it — and do it right.

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