Sewell: Did Pam let cop board kill useful womens counsel?

By John Sewell –

Most public figures steer clear of policies to reduce levels of sexual assault against women since it is so tangled and immediately runs into the need to change the way the police force works. But, to her credit, local councilor Pam McConnell waded into this issue almost 10 years ago in the hopes of provoking change, and until recently her intervention has been critical to the changes needed.
In 1999 the city auditor conducted an audit on how the Toronto police force dealt with sexual assaults. This work was undertaken after the courts had ruled that the Toronto police force was guilty of negligence in its investigation of the sexual assault of Jane Doe (the excellent book The Story of Jane Doe, published by Random House, tells this extraordinary saga), and after council was goaded by McConnell and others to respond. That report, which is still available on the web site of the city auditor, www.toronto. ca/audit, paints a very distressing picture of what a woman asking the police to deal with a sexual assault might find. It has almost five dozen recommendations, and makes it clear the police should work closely with women’s organizations to make the necessary changes. Four years later, in 2003, when it was clear that police management was not making the changes needed to provide women better service, McConnell was made a member of the Toronto Police Services Board and she took up the suggestion of the women’s community to establish a Sexual Assault Audit Steering Committee to help implement the auditor’s proposals.
The auditor did a follow-up report in 2004. It showed that very few of the recommendations from 2003 had been implemented. McConnell helped the steering committee get firmly established in 2005. The committee included Jane Doe and several other women very knowledgeable about issues and organizational change, as well as senior police officers and members of the sexual assault squad, which had then been renamed the Sex Crimes Unit. Having a committee where outsiders and police officers worked together as equals was innovative. The committee worked slowly and methodically, but with considerable success. Women were permitted to monitor the training classes for police officers, and made a number of important changes to the way that training is done. Recommendations were made about the way that community alerts to women should be made, and the way investigations should be conducted, although these changes were not fully implemented.
McConnell and the women involved recognized that the two biggest issues they had to deal with were the police culture itself—on which much has been written over the years—and the difficulties of trying to make change in a large organization. Then without warning, the chair of the Police Services Board, Alok Mukherjee, told the committee members that the committee and its work was being terminated. That happened last November, although Mukherjee’s report did not arrive before the board until May 21. His claim was that the police were now going to implement the auditor’s recommendation on their own. Apparently McConnell seemed to find that appropriate. But a half a dozen women’s groups appeared before the board to object, arguing that the police were unlikely, given past behaviour, to make the changes needed so that women, the chief victims of sexual assaults, could expect to find a responsive police force when they were attacked. McConnell scrambled at the meeting to piece together a proposal to create an advisory committee and have the police chief monitor the way training on sexual assault issues occurs within the force.
One has to wonder what will be accomplished by destroying a steering committee consisting of outside community members and police officers, a structure that worked reasonably well, even if slowly, and then creating a new committee which will not ensure that police officers and community representatives work side by side, but will be advisory only. This seems like a poor substitute.
Perhaps Chief Bill Blair thinks he can change the direction of the police force from the top. Many new managers of big organizations have that dream, but they rarely are able to make the changes needed without ensuring that outsiders get to play a critical role on the inside. It looks as though on May 21 the culture of the big police force once again put a halt to the changes needed in the way police deal with the sexual assault of women. The city auditor will report in 2009 on the situation once again. One fears that Councilor McConnell’s intervention a decade ago may have been a door that opened in the past, but has since closed.