There are two things cops hate: the way things are, and change.
During the ongoing saga over the selection of a new commissioner over the past two days, we’ve heard a premier and a senior Toronto police officer state publicly that the Ontario Provincial Police needs a cultural change at the top. Where is that coming from? In my view, it’s all about the pure loathing of organizational change. Change is stressful for employees. It’s work and it’s exhausting. Most organizations – including police services, are immersed in a cycle of change that seemingly never ends, and it likely never will. The environment, technology, community dynamics and budgetary pressures do “more with less” and do everything with nothing. Not only is there no “new norm,” there simply is no longer a norm of any kind. Ongoing change is inevitable.
The Toronto Police Association has been very vocal over the modernization of the Toronto Police Service. Ottawa Police have gone through very similar issues with their service initiative. Changes in the RCMP and calls for even more RCMP modernization are incessant. Many of Canada’s police services are facing the same challenges.
I was a senior officer in the OPP in the early 1990s when Commissioner Tom O’Grady led a significant restructuring. Similar changes occurred later under Commissioner Gwen Boniface. Commissioner Julian Fantino brought more change to the OPP, some of which I continued and added to during my tenure. Vince Hawkes led change initiatives during his years as commissioner. At any given time throughout all of those eras, a minimum of hundreds of the OPP’s several thousand members were very unhappy with the change. That is the reality of the human dynamic.
The most critical key to successfully making change is to effectively communicate throughout and to involve the union and the membership as a whole in the process. We haven’t always done that well, and try as I did myself, I also failed at times on that front.
But when all of this occurs – the good, the bad and the ugly, does that mean that it’s all going to hell in a hand-basket? Does that mean the whole organization is in peril and that the public is in jeopardy? No, it does not.
The premier and Toronto Police Superintendent Ron Taverner, the premier’s choice for the OPP commissioner position, have obviously heard some members speak up about the need for leadership change in the OPP. “Maybe” even hundreds of complaints and maybe some of them quite justified, depending on a variety of legitimate and perceived factors. But does that mean that 9,000 OPP employees are dissatisfied? I think not. The OPP is a wonderful organization, as is TPS, but they – like most other police services across Canada, have their warts too. The world isn’t perfect and nor is any private or public-sector organization in it, including police services.
OPP morale has always been a moving target, as some detachments are periodically shorthanded and busier than others. Headquarter units fight through “flavour of the month” funding challenges, while frontline detachments feel they are not understood or appreciated. Fickle internal political camps come and go with the wind and fuel the fires. Debates over centralized versus de-centralized decision-making model arguments cause angst. Too much focus on technology and data as opposed to boots on the ground and more issues drone on. Some members will feel they were unfairly dealt with, and perhaps a few improperly were. I get all of that. Been there, lived it at all levels, hated all of it and more during my decades of service. It all becomes a very difficult balance for OPP leadership and someone is always going to feel like they are the loser as the pendulum swings to and fro. You understand that more and more as you go higher in the organization. You just have to try your best to keep it real, fair and treat people right, knowing that some will never be happy.
The commissioner’s role has never been for the faint of heart. It’s an exhausting, 24/7, 365 days a year position, where each day you’re not even sure how many of the OPP’s 350 plus municipalities and Indigenous communities you’ll be visiting; how many of the 9,000 employees you’ll meet; and how much of the over one billion-dollar budget you’ll be fighting to retain. All of that while being one phone call away from facing immense tragedy – within the service itself, or in the many communities you are sworn to serve.
Supt. Taverner pulled himself from the OPP commissioner position on Wednesday, during what has become a political spectacle and amid a review of the selection process by Ontario’s integrity commissioner. I think that was a mature decision on his part. There are still good candidates for the position within the OPP ranks and in a variety of great police services in Canada. He or she will need to assess the current organizational challenges and environmental issues and must possess an incredible balance of police leadership experience, including the ability to communicate effectively; build trustful relationships internally and externally; support people; and have the competence to champion even further change. He or she must also have the ability to hold people accountable – fairly challenging them through due process when they are not, as well as make decisions, which are overall in the best interests of the communities being policed, closely followed by the needs of the members. Saying “yes” to everyone in every situation is not an option.
The OPP is not broken. There are still lots of experienced officers applying to the OPP every day from TPS and other departments. It will need some tinkering of course – as it always has, but the right candidate will be found and the 110-year-old organization will move forward as a team of wonderful uniform, civilian and volunteer men and women, and will continue on to be respected as one of the world’s best police organizations. That part will never change.
Chris Lewis served as Commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police from 2010 until he retired in 2014. He can be seen regularly on CTV and CP24 giving his opinion as a public safety analyst.