A dysfunctional police board oversees Toronto police

John Sewell —

In November the Toronto Police Services Board decided it would not review the police service budget in its detailed form, but instead simply approve a global spending limit of $957 million recommended by the chief. When the detailed budget was finally released three weeks later, it was learned that it called for cutting 172 front line officers—about 10 officers from each of the 18 divisions—something the chief had not mentioned in his brief report.

Toronto Police Accountability Bulletin

There were many other differences between the chief’s report to the Board and the detailed budget, which has led some to think that the detailed budget was not a real budget that will be followed in 2015.

1. Dysfunctional police board

It would be difficult to think of anything more irresponsible for a manager than not reading the detailed budget. But that’s the story at the Police Board. And things then go further downhill as we report in this bulletin.

The Board refuses to reveal what it is doing in mediated talks with the chief about the future of carding. The Board chair has refused to permit discussion at the board on the important matter of transparency as the service restricts radio access to the media. The Board is unwilling to monitor an important pilot project of the police service on lapel cameras. The Board refused to continue a discussion about strip searches from one meeting to the next by not correcting a mistake in the Board minutes.

TPAC’s attempts to intervene in each of these matters have failed. How can effective oversight of the police in Toronto be restored?

2. Carding and civilian control of the police

The Toronto Police Services Board passed a policy last April, which generally restricted the carding that officers were permitted to do, but that decision didn’t mean the officers were bound by the policy. Chief Blair was asked to report on implementing that policy, but that has not occurred. His report was to have been at the December Board meeting last year but wasn’t. Then, in early January, he announced that carding had been stopped, although it was unclear what that meant. The matter was rescheduled for the February meeting but again there was no report from the chief, then at a special meeting called for March 2.

On February 27 the Board released this enigmatic notice:

“With the help of an outside mediator, former Chief Justice Warren Winkler, the Board and the Chief are continuing to work diligently to resolve outstanding issues concerning the Community Contacts policy. For this reason, the Board will not proceed with the special public meeting scheduled for March 2, 2015 at 4 pm.

“The Board will make no further comments during the mediation. A media blackout is in effect. At the conclusion of the mediation, the Board will ensure that the community is informed of developments regarding the implementation of the Community Contacts policy.

“The Board appreciates the patience shown by all concerned as the Board and the Chief continue their work on the development of leading practices around community contacts.

TPAC’s attempt to put this on the March 19 agenda of the Board meeting was rebuffed by the Board chair. Our letter stated:

“We do not understand why the Board thinks it has the right to carry on the public’s business in private, particularly on an issue which has engaged so many individuals in this city. We think the public needs answers to the following questions: What are the terms of reference given to the mediator? Is this a matter of a personality conflict between the Board and the chief? If this is a disagreement about policy, why is this disagreement not made public? Is this a case of insubordination, where the chief is unwilling to adhere to Board policy or is there something else in play? Does the chief have reasons for wanting to continue the carding procedures, reasons which he is not willing to make public? On what date was the idea of retaining a mediator agreed to?”

No answers have been forthcoming. Chief Blair leaves his position within a month.

3. Lapel camera pilot project proceeds

The Toronto police service has begun a pilot project regarding the use of lapel cameras. TPAC was before the Toronto Police Services Board last October asking the Board to set terms of reference for any pilot project and the manner in which the project would be evaluated. The Board refused: it received our letter and took no action. Now the police service is proceeding on its own.

Meanwhile, on February 18, 2015, the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (working with privacy oversight offices in all provinces and territories) issued a lengthy report on lapel cameras, identifying privacy considerations that should be taken into account to ensure compliance with privacy laws. We again asked the Board to put this item on the agenda for the March 19 meeting. Our request was denied.

Almost nothing is known about the pilot project the Toronto police service intends to conduct. Will it meet the privacy concerns that are outlined in this federal report? What are the terms of reference for the study? How will evaluation be done? Will that evaluation be done independently and by whom? What is the cost and timing of the study?

The public has answers to none of these questions. The Board has made sure they are not talked about in the forum that is charged with governing the police.

4. Encrypting police radio

On March 2, the Toronto police service implemented the encryption of police radios so that only the police can have access to the information transmitted on these radios. This is a significant change, since until this time almost anyone with a scanner could hear what was said on the radios.

Of most importance, the media could hear what calls were about and where incidents were occurring so that reporters could go to these calls and report on what was happening. “Open” police radios provided real transparency so that reporters could see for themselves what was occurring and relate this news to the public at large.

With encrypted messages, this transparency is gone. Reporters don’t know what calls the police have responded to or their locations.

The public needs as much information about police activities as it can get. Encryption means the police can carry out many of its activities without the public oversight which good reporting brings. What might police officers do to individuals if they know that their activities are not overseen by those who are independent, such as reporters?

Police spokespersons have said that police will provide information after events have occurred, but it is well known from past experience that police officers rarely release any information about mistakes they have made or things that they have done improperly. Relying on police alone to say what they have done is not good enough.

Toronto police in the past have never alleged that open radios caused public problems. If there are such arguments, it would be good to hear them.

In Regina, the police service has provided the media with mechanisms to the encryption system so that they can listen in on police calls. At the very least, this should be done in Toronto. Our request to appear before the Board on March 19 to make this request was denied.

5. Conducted Energy Weapons (CEWs) in the GTA

In late 2013, the provincial government released a new policy, which argued that police boards could equip all officers with CEWs to ensure those officers were protected from assaults. TPAC was one of the groups that argued that the Toronto force should not equip all officers with CEWs, and the Board agreed, restricting them to officers in a supervisory capacity.

But all around Toronto, the rush has been on to buy them. The Ontario Provincial Police has agreed to equip every officer with a CEW. So has York Regional Police, and Halton, and apparently Peel and Durham and Hamilton and Niagara. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on this technology—the Halton police force itself has spent $400,000 on CEWs.

Will officers be better protected? Will the public be safer? Is this a wise way to spend taxpayer dollars? We suspect the answers are No, No, and No.

6. Strip search discussion frustrated

At the January Board meeting three members of the Board made it clear they thought the police were strip searching more people than necessary. Chair Alok Mukherjee, Mayor John Tory, and Councillor Shelley Carroll all asked probing questions about the way strip searches were done and the number of times they took place. It was said that the data on 2014 strip searches would be before the February Board meeting, and Board members agreed their continued discussion would be deferred for a month.

Chair Mukherjee said, “We will receive this and discuss it again when the chief reports the statistics in one month or two. We should hold on to this [material] so when we have the chief’s report next month we will have all this information [at hand.]”

This is clear from the video tape of the January meeting at about the 56-minute mark.

TPAC met with Councillor Carroll a few days before the February Board meeting and pointed out that the strip search matter was not listed on the February agenda, and in fact we had been told by Board staff that the 2014 data would not be presented until September. The minutes for the January meeting incorrectly stated that the whole matter had simply been received, with no mention of the intention to continue the discussion at the next meeting. She agreed to raise this inaccuracy when the minutes were to be confirmed.

But when the minutes were presented, they were confirmed without comment by her or anyone else, and our attempt to get the matter on the agenda was frustrated. The January discussion was the most serious the Board has ever been about changing the strip search procedure—change police management has always opposed—but now change has been frustrated.

7. Pan Am Games security

The Pam Am Games will arrive in the Greater Toronto Area this summer, and they appear to offer exciting times. There are two reasons why this event will probably not be a repeat of the G20 meeting in June 2010. First, the Games are not such a political event, although some will certainly find good reasons to raise political objections to some countries.

Second, the G20 involved police forces from around the country acting together under very dubious strategic leadership. During the Pam Am Games, we have been told by the deputy minister of Community Safety for the province, each jurisdiction will only use its own officers to deal with security issues. In Toronto, only Toronto officers will be on security detail; in York Region, York officers; and so forth. Apparently this means lines of authority will be clear.

TPAC has asked that there be strong civilian control in the planning of police strategies for the Games, but that will not occur. The Ontario Provincial Police, which does not have a civilian board that governs it, has held consultation meetings with the various police boards whose officers will be involved in security. Consultation is a good thing, but it is hardly civilian control, and none of these individual boards is in control of the whole operation, nor can they hope to influence the whole operation or fully understand the way it will function. What is needed is one group of civilians which the OPP, as the master planner, reports to, so the strategies of all forces can be co-ordinated.

For example, TPAC has argued that we need basic policies such as: no kettling; an assurance that officers will not use CEW’s unless they have video cameras which come on when they are drawn; positive attitudes to demonstrations; full name badges on outwear; no use of sound cannons; independent supervision of the different police forces to report on any incident of police assaults. We also want to ensure that street-involved people in neighbourhoods near Pan Am sites and people from racialized communities are not harassed and profiled by police prior to and during the games

TPAC continues to hope that policies and procedures will be put in place to ensure the security arrangements for the Pam Am Games are free from the problems of the G20.

8. Occasional name tags

It took much slogging (mostly by TPAC), but half a dozen years ago Toronto Police officers were finally required to wear name tags on their uniforms, identifying themselves with names rather than an anonymous number. Except not always.

The regulation is clear, but contrary to it, hundreds of police officers on the streets of Toronto conceal their name tags when they wear raincoats or winter jackets. The matter was raised by TPAC at the February 19 meeting of the Police Services Board, and after virtually no discussion the Board rejected a request to require police officers to wear name tags on all items of clothing, including raincoats. Despite the fact that both the Vancouver and Montreal police forces have such a regulation, Chief Blair rejected the idea because of the “costs” involved.

So much for the principle that police officers have a responsibility to identify themselves to the public they serve.

9. TPACer honoured

Chris Williams, a member of the steering committee of TPAC, has been honoured with the Lincoln Alexander Memorial Award, presented to a student of Osgoode Hall Law School, in honour of Lincoln Alexander, Ontario’s first black Lieutenant Governor. We offer him our congratulations.

The award permitted Chris to make a short speech which he titled `The Currency of Shared Struggle.’ Here’s an excerpt:

“Diversity can clearly function as a Trojan Horse.

“The disingenuous and duplicitous dimensions of diversity are on full display within another police force, the one right here in Toronto proper, which is often praised for extending employment to previously excluded groups. And there’s no doubt that the complexion of the Toronto Police Service is not what it was, say, twenty years ago.

“Still, as one might expect, an important form of diversity—ideological diversity—is absent from their inclusive agenda. The pathetic picture that emerges is one characterized by a host of smiling black and brown faces who walk in virtual lock-step with the same racist institutional imperatives that have held sway for several decades.

“We find, more specifically, high-ranking Black deputy chiefs who earn their $250,000 salaries by attempting to neutralize the large body of evidence—both statistical and anecdotal—regarding systemic racial profiling. In 2011, for example, the Toronto police filled out 88,300 contact cards with the skin descriptor “black,” or about 1,700 per week; that’s a stunning degree of race-based targeting in a city that, in 2011, had a Black population of 220,000.

“And in affluent parts of the city like Bayview/Lawrence, Yonge/Davisville, Bloor/South Kingsway and so forth, Blacks are eight or 10 or 12 times more likely to be carded than their white counterparts. It should be noted, as well, that children under the age of thirteen are not spared the coercive experience of being stopped, interrogated and entered into the contact card database.

“Despite this, or perhaps because of this, the aforementioned Black deputy chiefs are quick to defend street level officers by invoking the discourse of crime control, as if huge numbers of Black people—including Black children—are causing criminal mayhem all over the city on a weekly basis.

“Corresponding, they engage in the tried and true practice of minimizing racism by presenting the victims as delusional and the problems, if any, as miniscule.”