Toronto

Chief Saunders acknowledges 'morale issue' in Toronto police force

Toronto's chief of police says he "can't answer" whether officers are working to rule after their union advised them to take measures to protect their health amid complaints about low morale and burnout, but said he expects officers to continue responding to calls and keep the community safe.

Police union directing officers to take lunches, take time to complete calls

Chief Mark Saunders says he can't say whether his officers are working to rule over their union's claim of low morale and burnout. (CBC)

Toronto's chief of police says he "can't answer" whether officers are working to rule after their union advised them to take measures to protect their health amid complaints about low morale and burnout, but said he expects officers to continue responding to calls and keep the community safe.

Chief Mark Saunders was asked Wednesday about claims by Toronto Police Association president Mike McCormack that 75 per cent of his officers believe there is a morale "crisis," and 92 per cent of his officers believe staffing is a concern on the force.

Asked by CBC Radio Metro Morning host Matt Galloway why so many officers report low morale, Saunders replied that he would "love to see the questions" that are asked of officers to determine the statistics, and wondered if they lead officers to specific responses.

"I'm hearing these numbers, but I'm not seeing the surveys that are saying this," Saunders told Metro Morning on Wednesday, although he acknowledged that morale is "an issue" for the force. 

"I would not put it as a crisis," he said. "There is a morale issue and I'll be the first to admit that."

Asked about the direction from the union that officers take their lunch breaks when they can and take the necessary time to wrap up a call rather than manage their shift along an "arbitrary timeline," Saunders said his officers are "highly trained and professional" and will "do everything they can to keep this city safe."

When Galloway followed up to ask whether the officers are working to rule, Saunders replied:

"I can't answer that because I know they are going to be answering the calls when they are called to be there."

He added that on a daily basis, officers take as many as 600 hours each day on non-lunch breaks.

"That's telling me it's a deployment issue," he said. "We need to put our officers in the right place at the right time."

He said officers tell him they want to see changes in shifts that allow them to meet modern policing needs, but the union must work with leadership if that issue is to be addressed. The force has "extensive research" with data on what resources officers are using, as well as when, why and how.

"We can plug it in to design the perfect shift for the Toronto Police Service to help answer all the questions that the president is concerned about," Saunders said. "So he needs to come to the table and work with us."

'Crisis in staffing'

Earlier this week, the union launched a website that warns of a "crisis in staffing levels" in the force and alleges that working conditions have reached "a breaking point."

The Toronto Police Association launched a website to share information on what it calls a "staffing crisis." (Mike Cole/CBC Toronto )

Staffing is taking a toll on front-line officers who do not feel that relief is coming, McCormack told Metro Morning on Tuesday.

"Quite frankly they've had enough," McCormack said. "I've never seen morale at such a low in my 30 years."

Asked directly, McCormack said he is "not asking" his officers to work to rule.

"I'm just telling them to be careful out there to make sure that their health is taken care of because when we have a stressed-out officer, when we have people who are burned out, it really does impact public interaction," he said.

Saunders acknowledged that officers have concerns about coming changes to the force based on recommendations from the Transformational Task Force. But he has communicated how these changes will roll out to his officers, he said, adding that the force has also made changes focused on addressing stress-related issues.

But Saunders denied that there is a "mass exodus" underway from the force, another claim McCormack made Tuesday.

McCormack said that so far this year, 277 uniformed and civilian staff have left the force. Thirty-six of the 95 uniformed officers that resigned are going to other police forces, he said. Asked why they are resigning, McCormack cited stress and low morale.

Mike McCormack, president of the Toronto Police association, says there is "crisis in staffing" in the force. (CBC Toronto)

Saunders denied this, saying that typically, 150 uniformed officers and 90 civilians — for a total of 240 staff — leave the force each year. This year's figure is likely to hit 270 in total, he said.

"That's not a mass exodus by any stretch of the imagination." According to Saunders, commuting times and different shift availability are top reasons that staff leave the force.

Asked where the claims from stress and burnout come from, Saunders said: "I'm not sure."

Rates of crimes such as assaults, homicides, shootings and break-and-enters are lower this year than the same time last year, he said. And he contradicted McCormack's claims that response times to calls are getting longer.

Saunders said he wants to reduce the response times even further.

"But in order to reduce those times, we have to take the steps to make those modernization pieces," he said.

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