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'I can't sleep at night': Families of Toronto police officers protest reported staffing shortage

Relatives and friends of Toronto police officers gathered outside the force's downtown headquarters on Monday to demand that the force take "immediate" steps to address alleged understaffing.

The rally, organized by the police union, took aim at Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders

Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders met with the rally's organizer in front of media cameras. The pair agreed to have a follow up discussion on the issues raised by officers' families. (CBC)

Relatives and friends of Toronto police officers gathered outside the force's downtown headquarters on Monday to demand that the force take "immediate" steps to address alleged understaffing.

Dozens of people attended the rally on College Street, carrying signs with messages that read: "Support our TPS heroes. We need boots on the ground."

The Toronto Police Association, the union that represents police officers, says the alleged understaffing is endangering lives.

"I can't sleep at night knowing that my husband is not safe," Jelena Leung, wife to a 16-year Toronto police veteran, said at the rally. "I see the state he comes home in every day. I see the state he's in when he goes into work."

Jelena Lung, wife to a 16-year Toronto police veteran, spoke to Chief Mark Saunders at Monday's rally to demand that the force take steps to address alleged understaffing. 1:48

Shortages blamed on modernization

The association is in the midst of a months-long campaign to draw attention to what it says are critical staff shortages. It says the shortages are being created by the force's modernization effort led by Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders. 

That push has included a symbolic non-confidence vote against Saunders last week and a billboard next to the Gardiner Expressway. The billboard is emblazoned with the smiling faces of Mayor John Tory, Saunders and police services board chair Andrew Pringle, beside the message: "These guys are putting your safety on hold."

TPA president Mike McCormack said he hasn't seen an event like this held at police headquarters and it shows the need for change. 

"This is an unprecedented event here at headquarters," he said. " The message is clear — the chief, the mayor, Chair Pringle — they need to do something and they need to fix this now."

TPA president Mike McCormack said Monday's event at police headquarters was 'unprecedented,' and it shows the need for change. (CBC)

McCormack told the media that police need the resources and the right amount of people on the job, and added that hundreds of officers have already left the force. 

"It's not like we have a shortage in one area — across the city. It's going to burn everybody out. Officers are working 12, 14, 16 hours."

CBC Toronto reported last month that some veteran officers feel betrayed by Saunders and other senior officers. Many of have been left burned out and demoralized by long hours and few reprieves from work life, sources said at the time. 

"It's been a growing concern. We really started to feel it in our household at the end of last summer," Leung said. "Our spouses should have never been put in this position."

Jelena Leung said she's seen a significant drop in the morale of her husband, a 16-year Toronto police veteran, in the last year. (CBC)

Shortly after the demonstration began, Saunders met with Leung in front of a throng of media cameras and reporters. 

"Officer safety is something that has always been a concern of mine," Saunders said, adding that the key tenet of modernization is to use existing resources more efficiently. 

Saunders also pointed out, as he has in previous interviews with CBC Toronto, that he believes changes to the shift schedule could bring quick relief to frontline officers. That process, however, can only be handled through negotiations between the union and the police services board. That means it is out of Saunders's control.

Leung wanted to know how she could see changes now. 

"I need to know how that's going to change today. I need to know how I could go to sleep every single night knowing that he is safe as humanly possible," she said. "That's not happening today. I do not feel safe. He's coming home exhausted every single day."

The meeting ended amicably, with Saunders walking back into headquarters without taking questions from reporters. Both he and Leung agreed to a have a follow-up discussion "in the right environment."

Catherine Anderson said that officers, including her spouse, feel as though they don't have the support of top brass while out on the frontline. (Talia Ricci/CBC)

Catherine Anderson, the spouse of an 11-year Toronto police veteran in 43 Division, said she's seen a "drastic difference" in her husband's schedule and wellbeing in the last year.

"They're all feeling like they don't have the support they need to do their job effectively," Anderson told CBC Toronto. 

There was also one unexpected arrival at the rally, Sahar Bahadi, the mother of Sammy Yatim.

In July 2013, Yatim, was shot to death by a Toronto police officer aboard a streetcar. The shooting roiled the city, and Bahadi has become an advocate for police reform and victim support since the death.

"I'm here today to support police family, despite that my son was killed by the police — was murdered by the police — it doesn't mean I hate police," she said.

"Police is very important for our society, to protect us and save people."