It has been a thorny issue for years, long putting the police board and the officers’ union at loggerheads. But in a tentative victory for the force’s modernization efforts, a year-long experiment with an overhauled Toronto police shift schedule is set to launch in the new year.
Banal, bureaucratic and, well, boring though it may sound, the Toronto police shift schedule has been an intractable and long-standing problem, particularly in recent years as pressure mounts to decrease costs and increase efficiency within Canada’s largest municipal police service.
The current system, called the compressed work week, is comprised of three overlapping shifts: a 10-hour day, 10-hour evening, and eight-hour night shift, a total of 28 hours for each 24-hour day. The biggest criticism of the system is that it sees roughly the same number of front-line officers patrolling the streets, no matter the time of day — a set-up that doesn’t account for the ebbs and flows of crime and demand.
“That is not consistent with the notion of using police officers when they’re needed and where they’re needed at the most appropriate time,” Mayor John Tory told reporters last week.
More effective scheduling and deployment was identified as priority in the Way Forward, Toronto police’s modernization plan aimed at increasing public trust, cutting costs and embracing new technology.
In a 2016 interview, following the release of the modernization plan, union president Mike McCormack said there was no way the schedule could be changed — “it’s pretty well bullet proof” — though he said he was open to shift alterations done in the name of officer health and wellness, not just cost cutting.
Both appear to be the aim of the schedule pilot project, which launches in January in Scarborough’s 41 Division and was announced at last week’s police board meeting.
The experiment will see officers work longer shifts (up from 10 to 12 hours) fewer days in a row, with a mix of days and nights — the latter a move to decrease the punishing health impacts of, for example, seven days of night shifts.
Meanwhile, the shift start times are organized around the division’s peak times, which were determined in part through an evaluation of TPS data, tracking calls for service and other demands on police resources, including proactive policing initiatives.
The 41 Division pilot project eliminates the seven-day work week, a move made in response to an overwhelming demand in officer surveys. The schedule was also informed by other services, including in York and Durham regions, where the forces are staffing based on demand.
It’s “no secret that the shift schedule is owned by the board and the TPA,” Staff Sgt. Greg Watts told the police board in a presentation last week. “However, the chief, the service, has the data and that collaborative approach has been incredible to see how we can actually work together for a common goal of increasing the efficiency of our officers out on the road.”
In a recent interview, McCormack called the pilot “100 per cent positive” and denied that the union has been reticent to change. Until now, he said, the TPA hadn’t been on board with the changes in part because it lacked the newly shared Toronto police data.
He stressed that the success of the pilot project depends on sufficient officer ranks — “there’s no sense in changing the shifts or doing anything around the shift model without having the staffing.”
The police union has claimed that a decrease in the overall number of officers — a central goal of the modernization plan — has led to increased crime and burnout. Tory and Toronto police chief Mark Saunders have denied this, saying the modernization plan will see officers deployed in a more strategic and cost-effective manner.
To that end, Toronto police and its board are aiming to reduce the number of non-emergency calls and tasks assigned to highly trained and paid officers, having them instead handled by the city. According to a report presented to the police board last week, such changes have resulted in a 93-per-cent reduction in the number of noise complaint calls officers attended between June and September of this year, compared the same period last year.
The shift schedule pilot project will be evaluated throughout the year, and is likely the first of a handful of staffing experiments throughout the city. A key part of the overall evaluation will be determining what’s necessary within each division, rather than taking a wholesale approach to staffing across the city, Watts said.
John Sewell, former Toronto mayor and member of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition, praised the initiative in a deputation to the police board last week. His group has been advocating for changes to the shift schedule for nearly a decade; in a January column for the Star on the topic, he accused the union of “featherbedding,” or forcing police to hire unnecessary officers.
“I think this is a big, big step forward, and we want to get the real detail on it,” Sewell told the board last week, requesting more information. “It’s very important in terms of police resources and public money.”
Wendy Gillis is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and policing. Reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter: @wendygillis