Toronto’s cops are overpaid, underworked, deeply entrenched and all too powerful. When they ask for more money, they tend to get it. Inside the problems plaguing the TPS
Chief Saunders is a skilled stall tactician
Clipped sentences and barking tones are the typical police chief’s stock in trade. But Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders speaks softly. He measures his words carefully and delivers them at nearly a whisper. And in February, Chief Saunders was at city hall, whispering in the ears of a number of city councillors ahead of council’s annual budget vote.
A police chief lobbying individual councillors is unusual, but then so were the circumstances: Michael Thompson, a frequent police critic, had been urging his colleagues to revolt against the Toronto Police Service budget. Saunders and the Toronto Police Services Board, the civilian body responsible for overseeing the city’s cop shop, had recommended that council approve a $51-million net increase in the police budget, which would bring it to a staggering $1.003 billion. The vast majority of that increase would be required to cover a 1.95 per cent salary increase that had been negotiated in 2015 for the city’s 5,200 officers and 2,000 civilian staff. The cops’ annual invoice to city hall has been the subject of much grumbling in recent years: the police service eats up 24 per cent of every homeowner’s property taxes (by comparison, the TTC constitutes 15 per cent). Policing costs the taxpayer more than firefighters, paramedics, libraries and public housing combined.
Thompson was proposing a series of budget cuts, in descending amounts—first a motion for a $24-million cutback, and then, if that failed, $20 million, then $18 million, then $12 million—in an attempt to impose some measure of curtailment upon a service that seems incapable of self-restraint. But these were more than just budget motions. If Thompson succeeded, it would be a symbolic vote of non-confidence in the police board—which is chaired by businessman Andy Pringle and whose members include Mayor John Tory—and in Chief Saunders himself.
All of which explains why Saunders was pressing the flesh with councillors ahead of the vote, making his case for a budget increase. Tory and Pringle were on the prowl that day too, coaxing and cajoling. The crux of their pitch was that it was too late to impose an arbitrary cut, and as for the future, well, they’d already got the message. Tory had announced the creation of a “transformational change” task force, which would present recommendations for restraining the police budget and for reforming the structure and delivery of services. The task force, co-chaired by Saunders and Pringle, also included a number of reasonably minded critics of the cops’ spendthrift ways, such as former mayoral candidate David Soknacki and former city auditor general Jeffrey Griffiths. Their lobbying effort was successful: Thompson’s motions were defeated 28–12.
When I met with Chief Saunders in early March, he was in a joking mood about it all. “It almost seemed like bingo,” he said of Thompson’s successive motions of ever-smaller budget cuts. “It was, ‘Let’s hope something sticks.’ ” It’s easy for Saunders to laugh. He holds a winning lottery ticket: a police budget whose value has increased by more than $200 million in 10 years. In the last five years alone, while the city has frozen property tax allocations to the public library system and social housing, and cut those to social services by 22 per cent, the police budget’s allocation has risen by eight per cent. The TTC’s budget increases currently outstrip the police’s, but unlike police, the TTC had its budget effectively frozen through most of the Ford years.
To his credit, Saunders recognizes that, in an era when technology-enabled disruptive change has hit many industries hard, he can’t keep winning the jackpot. He points to large private-sector organizations such as Walmart and Kodak—“large entities,” he says, “where everyone thought, ‘This will go on forever.’ There comes a point in time when, if you don’t make the right decisions at the right time, someone else will come in and make those decisions for you.” Yet in the last decade, the police service has amassed at least 15 reports on how it can become more effective, more responsive, more transparent, more efficient and less expensive. They could begin the process of saving millions tomorrow. They just need to get on with it.
For starters, they could change the shift schedule—the current structure creates a significant mismatch between available officers and demand for service, even though the majority of calls to police come between 4 p.m. and midnight. They could do away with the two-cops-per-cruiser rule that’s in effect from 7 p.m. until 3 a.m. They could hire more civilians to handle the kinds of tasks—answering calls, forensics, victim services—that don’t always require a badge. They could create an open database of all the incoming calls and analyze it to better deploy resources. When the New Zealand police implemented a system for handling non-emergency crime reporting by phone, they reduced call handling times from 18 minutes to 10 and enabled better deployment of police personnel; the change is expected to free up a total of 73,000 hours a year. None of these ideas are new. Other cities have tried them. They work well.
But Saunders doesn’t appear to be in any hurry. “That’s not the right way to do business,” he told me. Behind him, like a sentry, stood his office’s most remarkable feature, a grandfather clock. “You have to look at the research that caused [other police forces] to do what they’re doing and then plug it into Toronto and say, ‘What would it look like here? How would it work? What are the benefits, the liabilities, the responsibilities?’”
Sounds a lot like a stall tactic. Saunders is pushing process, not reform. Perhaps that’s the habit of a seasoned detective: he wants to approach the situation without prejudice and let the evidence dictate next steps. The trouble is that Saunders isn’t a detective anymore. He is 53 years old. He has spent 33 of those years in the Toronto Police Service. He’s worked in homicide, in drug enforcement, on the anti-gang squad. He was deputy chief for three years and he beat out qualified rivals for the top job. He knows the organization he leads, its issues and preoccupations, its strengths and weaknesses, its collective agreement and governing legislation as well as anybody. He has seen all those reports and recommendations. He readily admits change is crucial. Yet he does not articulate a vision of what the force should look like five years from now. He commits only to gathering more information.
I asked him for his perspective on the shift schedule, which has been in the crosshairs of police reformers for at least a decade. Three years ago Bill Blair told me point blank, “I don’t need the same number of officers on duty on Sunday afternoons as I do on Friday nights.” Yet in Blair’s decade as chief, the schedule never really changed—largely because it’s part of the board’s collective agreement with the police officers, so any changes would have to be negotiated with the Toronto Police Association. Still, it was a blunt, honest assessment.
The new chief deflected the question. “I don’t have the luxury of having personal opinions,” he said. “My opinions are going to be based on comprehensive research and data.” That data will be gathered in the months ahead as part of the task force, which will issue an interim report in June and a final report in December. The same will likely happen with other recommendations for change: months, if not years, of further study. The implementation of any changes to the police budget, and to police operations, may well be pushed into 2017 and beyond.
Saunders chafed at the suggestion that he’s not moving fast enough. “When they had a competition for chief, it was clear that to sit in this seat you had to understand the need for transformational change. There will be transformational change.” He added: “Everyone is in a bit of a tizzy because they think I’m stalling. There is no stalling.” Saunders is almost one full year into a five-year term whose success or failure will be defined by the transformation of the service he leads. Time is not on his side.
Andy Pringle and the new police board are warm, friendly–and the opposite of what’s needed
When John Tory announced his new police task force, it bore all the hallmarks of his political style: let’s work together to find a sensible compromise that meets everyone’s needs. It’s been his MO on other files: the Gardiner East (let’s find the right type of hybrid), the Scarborough subway (let’s agree on the right number of stops) and now policing (let’s all agree on how to save money and modernize the service). It is a good-natured attempt to move discussion beyond past squabbles, to keep the most contentious arguments behind closed doors.
In 2010, Rob Ford, freshly sworn in to the mayor’s post, appointed Councillor Michael Thompson to the Police Services Board. Thompson teamed up with then-chair Alok Mukherjee, a mild-mannered academic and public servant, to urge reform. The city issued a target to reduce the cost of policing by 10 per cent over two years, and then-chief Bill Blair was instructed to conduct a comprehensive organizational review. Three years later, Blair’s review was still in progress. In the meantime, the police budget had grown by more than $39 million. In 2013, the board unilaterally forced a budget freeze upon Blair—the only budget freeze the service had seen since before the Lastman years.
The police board, believing that Blair was deliberately dragging his feet, had the votes to fire him back then, but Ford insisted on waiting until Blair’s term was over to avoid a messy departure. Ford’s team had not made a public case for the chief’s dismissal, and Blair was still reasonably popular with the public (despite lingering G20 flak)—if not with his board. When Blair eventually issued his operational report in January 2014, the board was aghast: his review had cost $1 million but recommended few changes and saved only $3.2 million.
Frustrated by inaction, the board hired the consulting firm KPMG to audit Blair’s work and propose a more ambitious agenda for change. KPMG’s report was deeply critical of Blair’s work. The firm itemized the galling deficiencies of Blair’s review, finding it inconsistent in many places, incomplete in others, and weighted in favour of the status quo in general throughout. It also recommended a moratorium on new hires and promotions, a more aggressive push to civilianize jobs, and more outsourcing, among other things.
For Mukherjee and Thompson, it was the end of the line for Blair. “There was solid thinking on the part of the board that we had to make significant changes,” recalls Mukherjee, who authored his own preliminary report in 2011 on how to reduce the police budget, intended as a blueprint for Blair to work from. “No disrespect to Mr. Blair—he had given his best—but the board was unanimous that his time was over.”
When Blair asked to have his contract renewed in the summer of 2014, in the midst of the mayoral campaign, the board refused and began to choose a successor. Some of the members were leaning toward a particular candidate: deputy chief Peter Sloly, a reform-minded administrator who had risen quickly up the ranks from the front line. Sloly had also spent time training with the FBI and held an MBA from York’s Schulich School of Business. Within months, the board’s reformers believed, it would have a change agent as chief and a KPMG report to help guide the way.
Then John Tory happened. After he was elected mayor on October 27, 2014, one of his first meetings was with Blair. Within six weeks, Thompson was out, as were Ford’s two other councillor appointees: Frances Nunziata, who kept her job as council speaker; and Mike Del Grande, who’d retired from politics. Tory filled one of the vacancies himself, and appointed two new councillors: Miller-era budget chief Shelley Carroll, a gifted communicator and card-carrying Liberal; and Chin Lee, most notable for having Doug Ford threaten to launch a robo-call campaign against him if he didn’t toe the Ford line (which he didn’t), who would be named the board’s vice-chair. When KPMG delivered its final report in September 2014, the board decided to bury it. Mukherjee, meanwhile, continued his push for change. “I told the mayor I wanted to begin implementation of some reforms,” recalls Mukherjee, “but he had his own priorities.” Come spring, in the competition for the chief’s job, Sloly had lost to the “cop’s cop” Saunders. Mukherjee, rather than stick out the remaining few months of his appointment, resigned in June.
To replace Mukherjee, Tory chose Andy Pringle, a mild-mannered, accomplished businessman who shuns the spotlight, which suits both his political masters and the police chief he oversees. Pringle, the husband of broadcaster Valerie Pringle, is a successful investment advisor and philanthropist, and former chair of the Upper Canada College board of governors, former fishing companion of Blair, and former chief of staff to Tory when he was leader of the Ontario PCs, as well as his long-time friend. “I met Andy back in 2003, during my first run for mayor,” recalls Tory. “At our first encounter the thing he wanted to talk about was police oversight. He didn’t come to his activism from a position of ‘The cops are always right.’ ” Tory handed Pringle the task of reforming the police—the same task the previous board had been trying to accomplish for four years before Tory dismantled it.
The mayor stands by his decision to reconstitute the police board. “I put Andy there because he gets along with people,” he says. “The previous board was on its way to 100 per cent paralysis. It had split into camps. The two sides were literally not talking to each other.” Indeed, board meetings had descended into farce, with the chief and his deputies repeatedly responding to board members’ questions with platitudes like “We’ll look into it.” When one meeting reached an impasse over the issue of carding, Blair and Mukherjee went to their offices to brood while Pringle ran back and forth between the two in an effort to get the meeting back on track.
Since Tory’s overhaul, the tone of police board meetings is far more collegial. Saunders praises the current board as “willing to listen and work together.” Even so, the net effect of Tory’s changes was to replace a knowledgable, experienced and strong-willed board with a less experienced, friendlier one.
No one inside the TPS seems too worried about all the bad policing
Police officers shouldn’t police themselves, but that’s exactly what happens. Typically, disciplinary tribunals are presided over by a hearings officer appointed by the chief, and the prosecutor is a police investigator, while the charged officer is represented by a lawyer hired by the Police Association. Reid Rusonik, a partner in the city’s largest firm dedicated to criminal law, Rusonik O’Connor, says the system is hopelessly biased in favour of the cops. “The precedents in terms of penalties are ridiculously low,” he says. “Significant acts of misconduct can result in nothing more than a day of docked pay. If I were a police officer, I wouldn’t lose much sleep over my tribunal hearing.” The unnamed officer who fatally shot Andrew Loku last July will not face criminal charges, and history suggests that it’s unlikely he or she will face significant discipline from the TPS.
CASE STUDY A
COMMIT A CRIME, SURRENDER FIVE DAYS’ PAY
After the G20 protests in 2010, when Toronto Constable Babak Andalib-Goortani repeatedly struck protester Adam Nobody with his baton, he was criminally charged with assault with a weapon, convicted, and sentenced to one year of probation and 75 hours of community service. But when Andalib-Goortani’s conduct went before a police tribunal for internal discipline, the judge’s decision referenced his years of commendable service, the stress of the criminal proceedings and the many letters from colleagues attesting to his good character. As punishment, the tribunal judge saw fit to dock the cop five days’ pay—a ruling that shocked Nobody’s lawyer, Julian Falconer. “The decision considered only the impact on the officer, not on the victim of the assault,” Falconer said. “It’s a flawed system of discipline.”
CASE STUDY B
THE MOTHER OF ALL PARKING TICKETS
On October 12, 2013, Toronto Police Constable Yi Hu was working downtown on a “paid duty” shift, the term cops use to describe freelance gigs for things like working crowd control for festivals or major events, or watching over construction sites. In this case, Hu was directing traffic outside the Air Canada Centre on the night of a Leafs game, clearing the limos out of Maple Leaf Square in preparation for the rush of traffic that would follow the final buzzer. But one limo driver, Eliezer Shemtov, refused to depart. Hu warned Shemtov that if he didn’t move his vehicle, he would be arrested for obstructing police. Frustrated by Shemtov’s inaction after repeated requests, Hu opened the car door and pulled Shemtov from his limo. The vehicle was in gear, so it rolled forward, striking another car’s bumper. Hu wrestled Shemtov to the ground, told him to put his hands behind his back, and delivered a punch to the head and two more blows until he complied. Shemtov was handed over to on-duty officers and taken to a nearby station. But he was never brought inside; he remained in the back lot for a couple of hours before being returned to his limo at midnight. Shemtov filed a complaint, and the incident was investigated.
At Hu’s tribunal last year, the presiding officer, Superintendent Debra Preston, found that Hu’s actions were “not borne from malice,” and that he’d exercised considerable restraint: he’d given Shemtov multiple warnings and applied only the necessary force to effect the arrest. The only problem, according to Preston, was that the arrest was unlawful. Shemtov had been manhandled, struck, handcuffed, arrested and detained for what was essentially a parking infraction. Yet Hu got a relative slap on the wrist. Preston docked him eight days’ pay and sent him back to police college for some remedial training on the topic of powers of arrest.
It was a run-of-the-mill incident that resulted in unnecessary use of force and a bogus arrest. As Preston’s decision pointed out, Hu failed to use a number of de-escalation techniques at his disposal. He could have given Shemtov a parking ticket and threatened to tow his vehicle. Hu had forgotten to bring his traffic ticket book to work that night, so he claimed those options were unavailable to him. But he could have also called for backup and let another officer issue the ticket; in any event, calling for backup is never a bad idea anytime an officer is locked in a battle-of-wills stalemate at a busy downtown intersection. Police overreaction to obstinate individuals who present a minimal threat has become so common that there’s now a name for it: arrest for contempt of cop. “When you demonstrate contempt for a cop, especially a young male cop, he is often going to go from zero to 100 in under two seconds,” says Ari Goldkind, the criminal lawyer who ran for mayor in 2014. “Calling them a name or even questioning their power can get you a beating.”
And that sort of power-tripping is merely part of a larger problem, says Goldkind: “Police officers routinely tailor their evidence to get convictions. This happens multiple times a day in Toronto. The phrase you often read in a judge’s decision is, ‘I prefer the evidence of the accused over the officer.’ That’s the nice way of saying it. And they rarely face discipline for it.” Plus, if officers taking the stand have been previously rebuked for poor testimony in an earlier case, defence lawyers are generally prohibited from cross-examining them about it. “I’m not allowed to point out another judge’s finding that the officer is a lying liar,” says Goldkind.
CASE STUDY C
SIX COPS, FIVE BULLETS
On November 30, 2013, six Toronto police officers responded to a call at 177 Mutual Street, where 34-year-old Richard Rose was in the midst of a breakdown in the building’s fourth-floor hallway. According to a report from the Special Investigations Unit (which reviews all incidents in which citizens are seriously harmed by police), Rose had pulled the fire alarm and was banging on doors, yelling obscenities. He had also taken hold of a fire extinguisher, which he discharged at some of the building’s residents. When the officers arrived, a standoff ensued. The first cop pointed his firearm and repeatedly ordered Rose to the ground—he did not comply. The second one, arriving from a different stairwell, was sprayed with powder from the fire extinguisher and knocked backward. Another officer came up the stairs behind him, pointed his C-8 rifle at Rose, and ordered him to drop what he was holding and lie on the floor. Rose instead approached the officer, who discharged several rounds from his firearm and then, after a brief pause, fired more shots. Rose was struck five times. A senior officer then approached Rose and tasered him.
Rose survived. He underwent multiple surgeries and now walks with a cane. In this case, the SIU found “no reasonable grounds to charge any officer with the Toronto Police Service with a criminal offence.” As for Rose, he is facing charges of assault on a police officer, assault with a weapon and mischief. His lawyer, Stacey Nichols of Neuberger and Partners, plans to argue for a stay of proceedings if Rose is convicted, on the grounds that police used excessive force. “There were five officers on the floor when Rose got shot. Surely they had other options to de-escalate the situation.”
The police association wields too much power
Last January, deputy chief Peter Sloly—who’d applied for the top job but lost to Mark Saunders eight months earlier—offered his blunt assessment of the Toronto Police Service to a group of youth leaders at the MaRS Discovery District. He said, “We run around all over the city in the most unfocused way, reacting to what you call us for, as opposed to trying to understand what’s going on and…putting our most important resources in the best place.” By making better use of technology, he said, the police service could reduce the number of stations it needs, expand the capacity of each individual officer and “probably drop ourselves by several hundred police officers,” saving tens of millions in the process. Sloly’s words made headlines not because of what he said—the ideas he proposed were not new—but because of who he was. A high-ranking officer had criticized the service and suggested it could do better with fewer cops. Sloly had broken rank.
Mike McCormack eagerly took up the job of trying to make Sloly fall back in line, or at least offsetting the damage by smearing him in the media. McCormack has been president of the Toronto Police Association since 2009. He is the son of former Toronto police chief Bill McCormack, who’d promoted Bill Blair up the ranks. He is also a former Regent Park beat cop who’s had his own share of police tribunal encounters. He was charged in 2004 with corruption and discreditable conduct, and in 2009 again with discreditable conduct, though all charges were dropped. He was convicted in September 2009 of insubordination for accessing a police database; the next month he was TPA president.
More recently, he has also emerged as the police service’s top spokesperson and advocate in the media—which, given his position, is strange. As a union president, he cannot speak for the chief or for police command. And yet he often does. Throughout the carding controversy, McCormack has been the practice’s most vocal defender, shielding first Blair and then Saunders from scrutiny over their inaction. Similarly, when Sloly made his public comments, Saunders said nothing while McCormack made the media rounds in the days following. He called Sloly’s remarks “sour grapes” over his loss of the top job to Saunders. “Peter knows better,” McCormack said on Newstalk1010. “We are having these conversations. We are looking at shift schedules, at deployment models. We are looking at how we respond to calls and at technology, and he should know that.” McCormack deftly cast himself as the champion of transformative change. In February, when Sloly resigned from the service, McCormack said he was glad to be rid of the “distraction.”
As reformers go, McCormack seems pretty satisfied with the status quo. He has been a shrewdly effective union boss. His predecessors, Dave Wilson and, before him, Craig Bromell, had volatile, adversarial relations with both police command and the police board, and their years at the helm were marked by job action, including a 2004 work-to-rule campaign in which officers traded in their uniform hats for TPA baseball caps and refused to issue traffic tickets. McCormack’s years, by contrast, have been notable for their labour peace—and for their lucrative collective agreements with police officers. McCormack is the quintessential backroom operator: the chief and the board look after his interests even when he is not in the room. Those shift schedule “discussions” he mentioned on Newstalk, for instance, have been going strong since 2005, when the collective agreement opened the issue up for debate. So that’s 11 years. And he had little interest in seeing someone as reform-minded as Sloly rise to the chief’s job. Former deputy chief Keith Forde, a Sloly supporter, told the Star that McCormack said to him bluntly, “We don’t like Peter. We support Mark. We don’t like what Peter stands for.”
“The association is not involved in the selection process,” McCormack insists, though he adds, “We were happy with the choice they made. The chief needs credibility with the members of the force.” He was also happy when Tory booted Michael Thompson from the police board: he issued a statement at the time calling the changes “a step in the right direction” that “will bring much-needed cohesiveness to the board.” He hounded Alok Mukherjee during his final months as board chair with calls for his resignation over a meme Mukherjee posted to his Facebook page that read: “Americans killed by ISIS: 3. Americans killed by Ebola: 2. Americans killed by police: 500+ every year.”
Yet even as McCormack agitates against reformers, he insists he doesn’t. “The notion that the TPA hasn’t been involved in changing the police service is misguided,” he told me. But he doesn’t believe in acting fast. “We need to look at the data and do this in a thoughtful, methodical way.” In other words, his position on police reform is a dead ringer for Chief Saunders’ view. Or perhaps it’s the other way around.
The TPA’s stated mission is to “protect those who protect others.” And McCormack has been a highly effective defender of his members’ interests. Their salaries start at $58,000 for new recruits and quickly rise to over $94,500 for a first-class constable. The pay is higher still for those who continue to rise up the administrative ranks. By comparison, officers in Ottawa start at $46,000 and work their way up to $89,000. Toronto officers who want to earn more have access to $68-per-hour paid-duty shifts. In 2015, some 3,132 officers earned an average of $8,154 each in extra cash from paid-duty assignments, which helps explain why more than 4,600 Toronto police employees earned more than $100,000 last year. Toronto police officers can bank up to 18 unused sick days per year, then cash them out when they leave the service.
The TPA’s collective agreement also includes their controversial shift schedule. It cannot be changed without their approval, which results in some very favourable working conditions. The schedule for primary response units (i.e., cops patrolling in cars) is made up of two 10-hour shifts and one eight-hour shift, for a total of 28 hours, which means police are being paid to work for four more hours than actually exist in a day. The overlap is in place to account for officers sharing intelligence as the shifts switch over, but according to former mayor John Sewell of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition, it results in cops getting paid to do little.
Other studies point to similar conclusions. Data compiled by the Ontario Municipal Benchmarking Initiative show that, in 2014, Toronto had 280 police staff per 100,000 people, more than every other city in the study except Montreal. Toronto also had a lower crime rate than most other cities, with 3,500 non-traffic Criminal Code incidents per 100,000 people. Yet Toronto officers had among the smallest caseloads in the study, with each officer handling an average of 18 cases per year (Ottawa officers handled 24 cases each; Hamilton, 28). Toronto also fared poorly in the study when it came to solving violent crime.
So to judge by the available data, relatively speaking Toronto’s police are not especially productive, nor are they especially good at catching bad guys. Yet they continue to enjoy the benefits of a sweetheart deal at taxpayer expense. And McCormack has all the angles covered to protect that deal: he’s got the chief he wants, the board he wants and the chair he wants.
McCormack disagrees that cops have it so good. He points out that the time it takes for officers to process a priority call has risen from 163 minutes to over 400 minutes due to the paperwork and protocol required. He cites these figures as an obstacle to reform, when quite likely they’re indicative of the desperate need for it. Like Saunders, McCormack has been around long enough to know this.
Toronto policing is stuck in the past. After the fiasco around carding and the tragic death of Sammy Yatim, amid a ballooning police budget and greater scrutiny of police behaviour, there is an appetite for change in the city. It’s a rare moment of political consensus. The police service’s leaders, from McCormack to Saunders to Pringle to Tory, all say they plan to make the most of the opportunity. But to judge by their actions, they seem intent on squandering it.