Changing the culture of policing will be one of the Transformational task Force’s greatest challenges, say policing experts
The task force struck to modernize policing in Toronto calls culture change the “essential underpinning” of its ambitious set of recommendations released this week.
“Our culture has been slow to change, and we want to quicken the pace,” reads the report from the Toronto police and its civilian board, released this week.
File that under ‘easier said than done,’ say some policing experts.
“The culture of policing has been profoundly and deeply resistant to change,” said Paul McKenna, an adjunct professor at Dalhousie University and public safety consultant who has worked with Toronto police and the RCMP.
The so-called Transformational Task Force, co-chaired by Toronto police board chair Andy Pringle and Chief Mark Saunders, released this week an interim report containing changes aimed at reducing growing costs, improving public trust and modernizing operations.
Recommendations include a three-year freeze on hiring and promotions, closure of some police stations and the erasure of historic patrol boundaries.
It also places a strong emphasis on a culture shift — including moving away from traditional, law-and-order model and towards community-centred policing.
How that change can be achieved will be detailed in the final report due in December, following a public consultation process. But the task force says it will involve changes to hiring and training, and partnerships with academic institutions.
Scot Wortley, a criminologist at the University of Toronto, said the importance placed on a cultural shift in the report strongly reminded him of a previous attempt (in 2007) to fundamentally change policing culture, called Project Charter.
In that collaboration with the Ontario Human Rights Commission, the Toronto police undertook the project to eliminate discrimination in its policing and employment practices.
“But it was one of these examples of coming in like a lion with the big press conference and a lot of enthusiasm, and then five years later went out like a lamb with the actual evaluation conceded that nothing much had changed or had been done,” Wortley said.
Why change is such a difficult task within police organizations is typically due to a potent combination of strong unions, an ingrained paramilitary structure and the thin-blue-line mentality, says McKenna.
“Even the most virtuous, ethical, noble-minded cop is going to protect his own, no matter what,” he said. “When it comes to police executives, they still want to protect their own culture. So how is someone who is embedded and has invested their whole life in promoting this culture, how are they going to be the ones to say presto-chango?”
Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Toronto, said he was “very skeptical” about the prospects of a major cultural shift — in part because key elements of policing are outside Toronto police jurisdiction.
That includes the Police Services Act, the legislation governing policing in Ontario, as well as the Ontario Police College, attended by all new police recruits in the province.
“That’s where they first enter the policing world,” Owusu-Bempah said.
But there’s reason to be hopeful real cultural change could happen within Toronto police, said Michael Kempa, associate professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa — thanks in part to other changes suggested by the task force.
While hiring is put on hold for three years, the police service will have time to develop practices to attract the right people to the force, Meanwhile, through attrition, the force will lose some of ‘the old guard” who may be more resistant to change, Kempa said.
“Get the set of promotions and hiring criteria right, get the core mandate of the organization correct, and then go forward gang busters,” he said.