Toronto Police Accountability Coalition


Shifty Business: Police Interests, Public Interests and the Politics of Police Shift Schedules


September 19 2017 - Chris Williams

Shifty Business: Police Interests, Public Interests and the Politics of Police Shift Schedules

Christopher J. Williams
(Toronto Police Accountability Coalition)

I. Rigidity and Self-Interests: Shift Schedules in Toronto

Discussions of police budgets typically pivot on an overriding what question  what is an appropriate budget?  to the point where a critical how question is often neglected: how will the resulting resources be used? Faith in the notion that police strive for optimal efficiency with respect to resource utilization partially explains the peripheral status of the second question, but, as some police insiders have noted, such faith is largely misplaced. According to Anthony Bouza, a former chief of the Minneapolis Police Department, we lavish our wealth on hiring more cops and the fact is, ironically, that hiring all those cops doesnt provide much additional coverage despite gargantuan costs. Inefficiencies get built in  the union secures sick leave, retirement, days off, and benefits that eat up large chunks of the increases. Given that police interests and public interests are not necessarily synonymous, measures that are dysfunctional for the public can indeed be functional for the police.

Beyond the items listed by Bouza, police shift schedules can also fall under the rubric of built-in inefficiencies; the Toronto Police Service (TPS), an organization with a $1 billion budget, furnishes compelling evidence in support of this proposition. In this regard, two issues are especially noteworthy. First, the TPS shift schedule is designed in a manner that results in a significant degree of shift overlap, giving rise to sardonic commentary about the remarkable capacity of the TPS to liberate itself from the parameters of the 24-hour day. More specifically, the force deploys officers in three shifts: a 10-hour day shift, a 10-hour evening shift, and an 8-hour midnight shift. The midnight and evening shifts overlap for four hours, and that means that in every 24-hour day, the city is paying for 28 hours of police work. Second, the shift schedule dictates human resource rigidity in the sense that, irrespective of the time of day, police patrol strength remains constant. As one journalist states, this results in the same number of officers being on the street at all times of day, rather than having more or fewer depending on demand, a fact lamented by a figure no less than former TPS Chief Bill Blair: I dont need the same number of officers on duty on Sunday afternoons as I do on Friday nights. This patrol resource flat-lining apparently runs contrary to the designation first responders, which implies commitments to being attuned and responsive to the daily ebbs and flows of incidents requiring police attention.

Explaining the persistence of these standards can be done, at a general level, by taking stock of longstanding sociological insights about the tenacity of tradition within major institutional domains. Tradition exerts an inertial weight that becomes more constraining the longer the system is in place, a process that creates mismatches between established ways of doing things and emerging realities that call for innovation. More concretely and vividly, a chief constraining influence exists in the form of police unions known for introducing and sustaining articles in collective agreements that advance the pecuniary interests of their members, with minimal or nonexistent regard for public service ideals. In April 2016, for example, Craig Bromell, former head of the Toronto Police Association, expressed this police-come-first ethos with unapologetic candor. The police unions only job is to protect those who protect others, not the community, not the politicians. Their only function in life is to protect those coppers and their civilian members, he declared. This conception of protection includes the defense of the 1,460 annual TPS shift overlap hours and the substantial monetary enrichments that flow from it.

Aside from the weight of tradition and the power of police unions as forces of stasis in relation to shift schedules, local political dynamics also play a role. Specifically, it is a banal truism to note that the pursuit of political capital, and the electability thereby enabled, encourages  and even impels  elected officials to take paths of least resistance when faced with policing issues. The label anti-police, which has been bandied about by former TPS chiefs such as Julian Fantino, is universally anathema and readily applied to those who challenge police power and privilege. The predictable results include status quo maintenance when it comes to shift schedules; as journalist Ben Spurr observes, the reality is that no administration has been able to convince the police union to give up the work hours represented by the shift overlap. Situated in supplicatory positions partially of their own making, Toronto city councillors and mayors facilitate the relegation of public interests to secondary status vis-à-vis police interests.

Beyond the walls of Toronto City Hall the negative consequences of the shift schedule are palpable to marginalized residents of the city. Specifically, having the same number of officers on duty at any given time of day can exacerbate misuses of police power during low-demand periods. Age-old warnings about the nature of idle hands are especially applicable to policing insofar as inactivity on the part of police officers leads to boredom and frustration, which often impels them to make work more exciting for themselves. How does this impulsion manifest itself? A vivid example is provided by a recreation centre supervisor in a low-income area of Toronto known as Chalkfarm:

Theyre sitting outside when were closing the building. Theyre waiting for someone to come outside. Its the adolescents. They love to target them. The police would grab one or two and question them and search them. The (officers) would write down information. The (kids) would come back in here, upset. Theyre venting. They would say, They searched my pockets. I dont know why. They asked me all these questions. The kids were afraid to go outside.

In other instances the desire of constables to avoid long stretches of inactivity is compounded by supervisory injunctions, directed toward frontline officers, to demonstrate productivity on the basis of various measures. In Toronto one such controversial measure pertains to contact cards, which are filled out by officers in non-criminal encounters with civilians; the cards include highly detailed personal information  name, date of birth, address, race, height, weight, eye colour, etc.  and are entered into a searchable database and retained indefinitely. In September 2013 a former TPS officer provided this take on carding: If youre talking about broad daylight, we have nothing to do, our superiors say we need to go out and card people...So, well actually go out in the parks and whatever and well look for guys who fit a certain description, who may not be wearing fancy clothes, and well harass them, like literally. And we call it shakedown.

To guard against misinterpretation, none of this should be taken as a claim that movement from constant to variable police strength would make these shakedowns disappear. Shift schedules, in this regard, are a peripheral factor in relation to larger considerations such as, say, the nature of policing a society in which equal rights are fully alive on paper and at least half-dead everywhere else. But since constant police strength results in excessive numbers of officers on patrol at certain points of each day, more opportunities thereby exist for officers to direct harassment and aggression towards population segments viewed as distasteful and dispensable.

II. Flexibility and Public Interests: Shift Schedules in Other Jurisdictions

Earlier, in the opening paragraphs of this paper, reference was made to the daily ebbs and flows of incidents requiring police attention. Some of these incidents are criminal in nature and statistics in both Canada and the US demonstrate that, for youth and adults, the volume of crime rises and falls at various points of each typical day. According to the US Department of Justice, for example, in general, the number of violent crimes committed by adults increases hourly from 6 a.m. through the afternoon and evening hours, peaks at 10 p.m., and then drops to a low point at 6 a.m. In contrast, violent crimes by juveniles peak in the afternoon between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m., the hour at the end of the school day. Research by Statistics Canada similarly demonstrates that youth crime is most prevalent from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.  the time between the end of the school day and dinner, while daily distributions of adult crime in Canada are in accord with the general patterns that exist in the US.

In recognition of such information, and unlike their counterparts in Toronto, police departments in various jurisdictions structure their shift schedules in ways designed to align patrol strength with crime-related service demands. For example, in 2014, after four decades of working on the basis of 10-hour shifts, the Greater Sudbury Police Service (GSPS) switched to 12-hour shifts and bolstered the variability of their on-the-street presence. As Inspector Sheilah Weber explained, it was determined that the current schedule we were on wasn't working for everybody. We weren't able to respond to calls in a timely fashion because we weren't putting the right resources on the road at the right times. The shift in shift schedules was a pilot project, and at this time it is unclear whether the GSPS has maintained the reforms, but is notable that the organization has been willing to establish breaks with its 40 years of schedule-related tradition.
In order to advance the comparative dimensions of this study, we sent e-mail messages to 21 police organizations in Toronto and the US, asking the following two questions: (1) What is the basic shift schedule in your department?, and (2) Do the number of officers on duty change throughout the day or do the numbers remain constant? One-third of the organizations (six in Canada and one in the US) provided responses to our questions, the likes of which are encapsulated in the following chart.

Front Line Police Shift Schedules
Police Department
Basic Shift Schedules
Constant or Variable Number of Officers Throughout the Day?
12 hour shifts: a 7:00am to 7:00pm day shift and a 7:00pm to 7:00am night shift. From Friday to Sunday there is a flex shift where some officers who would normally work the day shift work from 4:00pm to 4:00am.
Variable from Friday to Sunday.
A mix of 10 and 12 hour shifts with some overlap hours on all shifts for transitional purposes.
Variable based on having more officers on duty during peak times.
12 hour shifts with staggered starts: 6:00am and 7:00am on the day shift, 3:00pm, 6:00pm and 7:00pm on the night shift.
12 hour shifts.
Variable with more officers working on weekends.
12 hour shifts.
No response (deemed to be an operational question).
12 hour shifts.
8 hour shifts with some 10 hour power shifts.
Variable based on demand at particular times of the day. Power shifts are one aspect of the variability.

With respect to basic shift schedules, one noticeable standard characteristic of all agencies, with the exception of Calgary, is the dominance of shifts that are in harmony with the 24 hour cycle. To appreciate the significance of this point we can turn to the reflections of Anthony Bouza who, during his time a Chief of the Minneapolis Police Department, stood in opposition to 10 hour shifts (worked four days per week) on the following grounds: In Minneapolis Id vigorously and successfully resisted four-and-tens on the notion that a twenty-four hour day divides itself neatly into eight-hour tours; that I wasnt getting anything like seven hours of work out of them now, so how would I get additional productivity by merely extending the workday? And this meant one less workday every week. This principle of divisibility is apparently appreciated by police organizations featuring 12 or 8 hour shifts; among other things, such shifts tend to reduce the substantial (and costly) overlap hours that exist in Toronto and elsewhere.

Turning to the matter of variable patrol strength, the Windsor Police Service declined to answer our question on the grounds that we were delving into off-limits operational details, but the other six police organizations responded and confirmed that they all function on the basis of variable, demand-driven approaches to patrolling. Among these organizations, the key distinction is between those that practice variability on a daily basis (e.g. Calgary) and those that confine patrol variability to weekends (e.g. Regina); adherence to one approach or the other is presumably linked to the nature of local crime patterns. One of the responding organizations noted that the number of officers working does fluctuate throughout the day and our shifts are designed to have more manpower on duty during peak times, while another stated the numbers change based on demand at particular times of the day and might vary from one police station to the next. This all comes across as eminently sensible, but for reasons rooted in public-be-damned sentiments and self-interests there remain police services that are far from fully committed to serving the public, at least on the basis of how they allocate their human resources.

III. Concluding Remarks

The classic statement by Sir Robert Peel to the effect that the police are the public and the public are the police has the perhaps unintended consequence of masking the degree to which police interests and public interests do not overlap in all instances. Recognition of such non-overlap in Toronto enables the production of critical perspectives on various aspects of policing including shift schedules. Despite the problems associated with the current 10-10-8 schedule, the status quo remains for a host of reasons, not the least of which pertains to a defeatist thats just the way it is outlook on the part of local political actors who are uniquely positioned to effect change if they so desire. As made abundantly clear by our research, other police agencies in other jurisdictions feature more efficient and more responsive shift arrangements insofar as they (1) avoid or substantially limit shift overlaps, and (2) calibrate patrol strength on the basis of service demands. The same sensible approach can take hold in Toronto if a sufficient measure of political will and practical courage is displayed by those in positions to assert the primacy of broad public interests over narrow police interests.

Resource Issue(s):